WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Six Shooters and Ten Pins

By on November 17, 2015

White Russians and bowling alleys aside, ‘The Big Lebowski’ is a classic Western.

Is ‘The Big Lebowski’ simply a Western masquerading as a cult classic in size 11 bowling shoes?  (Photo: Working Title Films)

Is ‘The Big Lebowski’ simply a Western masquerading as a cult classic in size 11 bowling shoes? (Photo: Working Title Films)

Jackson, WY – Reykjavik, Iceland is famous for having the world’s only bar themed around the 1998 cult classic, “The Big Lebowski,” which stars Jeff Bridges as an apathetic, uber-confident slacker known as the Dude. Inside Lebowski Bar you’ll find plenty of American fare and bowling memorabilia, and you can order a white Russian 23 different ways. It’s a popular place for tourists and locals, and I’ve had some good times under its neon lights, but I had actually never seen the movie all the way through. A few summers ago it was featured as a bike-in movie at Snow King, but I ended up leaving for some odd reason.

The other night, a few members of the staff at the hotel I’m working for here in the Icelandic town of Neskaupstaður decided to have a movie night and watch the film. Whatever scenes I may have seen or Internet memes I might be familiar with, I was completely unprepared for how strange and fascinating this movie was. Especially because, from the moment it started, I began to understand that “The Big Lebowski” is one of the best modern Westerns of our time.

The movie opens with a tumbling tumbleweed and the low baritone of Sam Elliott narrating our landscape. He tells us about the fellow we’re about to meet: Dude.

“Now, Dude; that’s a name no one would self-apply to where I come from,” Elliot says.

Of course, I thought. Dude wasn’t just a nickname for him, it was a label.

And in that moment I realized that “The Big Lebowski” could be boiled down to the story of a city guy, a dude, told from the perspective of a real cowboy. Throughout the film, characters speak in strange, exaggerated dialogue often punctuated with a name or a title, like “man,” “Lebowski” or “sir.” This doesn’t differ much from the “sheriff,” “son,” and “ma’am” heard in old Westerns.

The more I started to watch the movie through the lens of it being a modern Western about a noble white hat (Dude), his overconfident deputy (Walter), the corrupt mayor (Lebowski) and his seductive saloon-girl daughter (Maude), the more similarities I found. Thinking that the Stranger (Elliott) was narrating this with the thought that it was almost a tall tale — similar to how a modern-day storyteller might glorify the life of Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp — events didn’t have to be rational or logical. The Dude is simply a reactor. Throughout the film he exclaims that Lebowski’s wife could be killed at any moment, but doesn’t have much of a plan himself.

Cowboys often saw visiting dudes, especially well-dressed, clean-cut men, as something less than their own masculine selves. They were “tenderfoots” or “greenhorns,” men who’d never chopped a log or ridden a horse in their lives. Here we see the Dude as someone who is so comfortable in his own element that he wears a bathrobe — the Dude’s cowboy hat. He orders his version of whiskey, a white Russian, at the bar and goes bowling to pass the time — perhaps the Dude’s version of shooting bottles off a fence post. Even as he’s relaxing in a tub listening to whale songs, the Dude might as well be on his bedroll hearing coyotes howl in the distance.

The film embarks on its own unique path and is less of a direct Western than it is an homage to Westerns and crime noir stories with some existentialism thrown in. But at the heart of it, it’s about a cowboy who follows a dude into the city and narrates his findings. Sure there’s plenty of oddities along the way — including the hilarious “Gutterballs” dream sequence, which has Lebowski donning bowling repair tools like a revolver at his hip — but it goes to show that the Western genre hasn’t died, it has simply evolved.

Wyoming is a different story of course. But outside the West, white hats and black hats still exist. Kidnapped girls still need saving. Hobbies have shifted from rodeos to bowling tournaments, and sometimes you just need to pony up to the bar and drink a smooth white Russian to wash your sorrows away, man. PJH

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