Tumbleweed is the first thing we see in the movie. As it rolls across the desert plains, we hear the cowboy's voiceover setting the scene: telling us (in not-too-specific terms) where we are and what the story is going to be about. Then the tumbleweed rolls into places we don't usually associate with tumbleweeds: a beach, Hollywood Boulevard, etc.
The tumbleweed, if you haven't guessed already, is symbolic of The Dude. Like The Dude, it's a relic of a different era—the wild, wild West in this case—that's a little out of place in its current surroundings, like the cowboy at the bar. And also like The Dude, the tumbleweed doesn't really seem to mind that it's out of place: it just keeps right on rolling. The tumbleweed helps us establish the visual narrative of an eccentric-but-ambitious loner making his way in a hostile world, blowin' in the wind and wandering aimlessly, just drifting wherever life takes him.
We first see the neon stars superimposed over The Big Lebowski's opening credits. When The Dude, Walter, and Donny leave Hollywood Star Lanes after bowling, we realize that the stars were actually mounted on the side of the bowling alley itself. Every time our happy trio leaves the bowling alley, we're greeted with these stars. Additionally, when The Dude gets knocked out by Maude Lebowski and dreams he's flying over L.A.'s nighttime cityscape, the lights beneath him take a shape similar to these stars.
The stars are a visual motif designed to ground The Big Lebowski in retro-ness. Hollywood Star Lanes was built in 1960, and much of its interior reflects this far-out fact. The stars also add to the generally trippy feeling of the film. It's no coincidence that they turn up when The Dude's dreaming of chasing Maude as she flies away on a magic carpet.
Bowling reached the height of its popularity as an American recreational pastime in the 1970s, which makes it perfect for inclusion in The Big Lebowski. You may have noticed a pattern developing here: despite living in the early '90s, The Dude has surrounded himself with all things '60s and '70s, probably to remind himself of his heyday as a Haight-Ashbury hippie. It's also a relatively cheap way to spend time with friends and relax.
But bowling is more than just retro scene-setting in The Big Lebowski. It's the central activity of The Dude's life (even though we never see him actually bowl in the film), and bowling ball imagery finds its way into all of his dreams and fantasies. He even blisses out to audiotapes of bowling tournaments. Seriously. Bowling is also a metaphor for one of the movie's biggest themes: fate, and how to control it. The Big Lebowski would have us believe that humans are as easily knocked down as bowling pins, and there's no way to know who or what is doing the knocking.
During the opening credits, when everything seems to be going well, everyone is bowling strikes. But as things get more complicated and tensions rise, people start missing pins. When Walter pulls a gun on Smokey, he's only bowled an 8. Right before Donny dies, he bowls a 9.
Both of The Dude's dream sequences involve bowling. In the first one, The Dude is trapped in a bowling ball. In the second one, he's literally become the bowling ball—flying down the lane through the legs of "pin-headed" women. Although the bowling ball may seem more powerful than the pins it is knocking down, there's still the feeling that The Dude is not in control, that he's just hurtling down the lane ready to crash. (To get the bowling ball point-of-view shots, the Coens attached a camera to a mechanism that resembled a barbecue spit and rolled it down the lane.) (Source)
If you look closely at the photo of the Big Lebowski and his Urban Achievers, you'll notice that the kids are arranged like bowling pins, with the self-important Big Lebowski as the #1 pin in front of the others. In bowling, as in life, some pins that seem more prominent than others will be the first to be knocked down.
Finally, bowling balls are, well, balls. And they have a lot of erotic moments in the film. Remember The Jesus licking his ball? And the two balls flanking the bowling pin in The Dude's pornographic Gutterballs dream? These bowling balls are versatile actors in the film, carrying all different kinds of symbolic weight.
Maude Lebowski is The Dude's introduction into the confusing and cerebral world of modern art. She's smart, sophisticated, and unflinching in her portrayal of the female form, which quickly becomes symbolic for "art" itself. When she first meets The Dude, she's flying over a canvas painted with the image of a naked woman. When she meets with The Dude the second time, we can clearly see photographed images of naked female bodies behind his head as he drinks his White Russian.
Maude Lebowski and the art world she inhabits are counterpoints to The Dude. The art world represents the cutting-edge intellectual and social progress of the 1960s, which was a time of expanding civil rights for women, people of color, and the LGBTQI community. While The Dude was getting stoned and listening to old Hendrix records, women like Maude Lebowski were making art about female oppression and sexual liberation.
Being a satire, the film is hard on Maude and her art world. The Coens make sure we see some of the pretentious and affected nature of artists who come across as pretty narcissistic and snooty to people who don't "get" their art. Maude even seems to be constructing herself and her life into a work of performance art.
Julianne Moore has said that the primary influences for Maude Lebowski were Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneemann. We all know Yoko as the Japanese conceptual artist who captivated John Lennon (and whom everyone blames for breaking up the Beatles), but who was Carolee Schneemann? Short answer: she was a feminist artist whose work explored the themes of sex and objectification. Like Maude, she painted from a swing. One of her most famous pieces was a little number called Meat Joy. Watch if you dare.
When Walter battles the Germans at the end of the film, we see a sign for Ben Hur Auto Repair. This is a reference to Judah Ben-Hur, the fictional hero of the 19th century novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. In the novel, Ben-Hur is a Palestinian Jew who single-handedly battles the Roman Empire in an attempt to free his enslaved people. The story was so popular that they even made a blockbuster movie out of it starring Charlton Heston.
The character of Ben-Hur is significant for Walter not only because Walter is Jewish but because he represents how Walter sees himself in the world: a single warrior defending an unpopular cause. Walter brings this attitude to the table regardless of whether he's engaging in combat in the jungles of Vietnam or bowling. His "us vs. them" mentality influences his attempts to help The Dude: he fights against the perceived enemy with gusto, often steamrolling The Dude's attempts to keep things peaceful. His friends are a tribe, just like Ben-Hur's, that need to be protected.
What's with all of the scissors in the film? They're all over Maude's studio, and they make a scary appearance in The Dude's hallucinatory dream, when the nihilists come after him with a giant pair of scissors. You don't have to dig very deep to figure it out. After all, the nihilists have threatened to cut off The Dude's Johnson, and in the dream, they're keeping that promise.
One commentary posits that, in fact, castration anxiety is one of the main themes of the movie. There's that ferret in the bathtub and the burning joint that falls onto The Dude's lap. You've got Walter, who feels emasculated by his wife leaving him and compensates by being hyper-masculine. There's the Big Lebowski, who poses as strong and successful but is really living off an allowance Maude gives him and is being controlled by his young wife. Heck, he even says as much at the end of the film, when he says to The Dude and Walter, "You bullies! You and these women! You won't leave a man his fucking balls!" The Dude is just plain scared of the nihilists making good on their threats, and the rest of the minor male characters are constantly running around engaging in macho contests to see who can be most intimidating. And we all know what that's covering up.
Maude is probably the most truly powerful character in the film, and she's got scissors everywhere in her art studio. She can be an emotional castrator. She "unmans" her father by revealing that he's really weak and powerless. And she uses The Dude for his Johnson and then tosses him out of her life. In fact, she sees men as irrelevant and useless except for that one small function.
It's the women in this film who are really running the show. None of the male characters in the film appear to be honestly strong and confident. Watch out for those scissors.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The Dude's world is established by the narrating cowboy, whose scraggly voice we hear over shots of L.A. A tumbleweed rolls down Hollywood Boulevard, and we find The Dude in a grocery store, drinking from a carton of Half & Half. This, we understand, is The Dude's life. It's an extremely, extremely chill one.
The Dude returns to his apartment to find that someone is already there: two muscular guys who claim he owes Jackie Treehorn money. One of them pees on The Dude's rug. They realize they've got the wrong guy, and they leave. The Dude is fairly pissed (no pun intended) about his rug.
The Dude does nothing about the rug-peers.
At the bowling alley, The Dude bemoans the state of his rug to Walter, who tells The Dude to stick up for himself. He urges The Dude to confront the other Jeff Lebowski about the incident. The Dude agrees.
The Dude goes to the Lebowski mansion, where the Big Lebowski isn't exactly sympathetic to The Dude's cause. The Dude steals one of the Big Lebowski's rugs.
The Big Lebowski recruits The Dude to recover his kidnapped wife. The Dude agrees, in large part because the Big Lebowski wants to pay him $20,000. But the briefcase hand-off goes south, in large part because of Walter's incompetence. This launches a series of events that tests The Dude's strength, intelligence, and patience.
As the plot thickens, The Dude finds him getting closer and closer to solving the mystery of Bunny Lebowski's disappearance and the disappearance of the Big Lebowski's money. Thinking he knows who stole the money, he and Walter pay an unfriendly visit to Larry Sellers. But Larry Sellers is a dead end.
In the strangest and riskiest turn of events in the film, The Dude is kidnapped and drugged by Jackie Treehorn. Despite his delirium, The Dude manages to escape from Jackie Treehorn's estate. He is then picked up and beaten up by the Malibu sheriff.
As The Dude is ejected from a taxi in the middle of Malibu, Bunny Lebowski speeds past him in her car, all 10 toes intact. At this point, we know that Bunny is OK, and that The Dude and Walter were right about the kidnapping being a sham. Which means, of course, that The Dude isn't guilty and the egg is on the Big Lebowski's face.
The Dude returns home, where Maude Lebowski tells him that her father is broke. This allows The Dude to put together the final pieces of the puzzle. He and Walter take a trip over to the Lebowski mansion.
The Dude tells off the Big Lebowski, and he and Walter successfully vanquish the German nihilists.
The Dude returns to his world of bowling and smoking with a new lease on life: he's happier and more Dude-like than ever. And according to the cowboy, there's a little Lebowski on the way.
The Coen Brothers wanted to pay homage to Raymond Chandler's gritty Los Angeles of the '40s and '50s, but they also wanted to put a new spin on it: instead of a sly gumshoe and rainy nights, they'd feature a confused stoner and sunny days.
The Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski both is and isn't the same Los Angeles you might see in a Raymond Chandler novel. All of the landmarks are still there: Hollywood Boulevard, the Sunset Strip, palm trees, etc. But it isn't the same because it's being seen through the eyes of The Dude, whose world is a lot more psychedelic than Philip Marlowe's.
The movie is set in the early '90s, right around the time of the first Gulf War. Although The Dude's political beliefs don't extend much beyond "Legalize It," Walter has a lot of feelings about the U.S. government's military presence overseas, and most of those feelings are positive.
By setting the film in the early '90s, the Coen Brothers were able to get away with some political commentary that you'd only catch on the second or third watch. In the opening scene, we see George H. W. Bush on the TV announcing that Saddam Hussein's aggression "will not stand." This was his announcement of the invasion of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi invaders. While this is on the TV, The Dude couldn't be less interested—he's sniffing a carton of Half & Half to see if it's OK for his White Russians. So we've got Walter and The Dude, the hawk and the dove.
The movie takes us across the socioeconomic spectrum, from The Dude's sad little apartment to Big's mansion and Jackie's swank Malibu house, and it allows the Coen Brothers to show two very different sides of Los Angeles.
By juxtaposing the rich and the poor, The Big Lebowski allows us not only to get to know the characters better but to become emotionally invested in our heroic antihero. After all, the entire plot kicks off with two hit men trashing The Dude's rather shabby apartment and peeing on his rug that really tied the room together. By seeing The Dude's living space, we're able to get deeper into his headspace: he's just a peaceful, anti-materialism guy who's been dragged into an escalating crazy-making situation.
When it comes to narrative technique, The Big Lebowski is pretty straightforward: one Dude, one story, all kinds of far-out consequences.
Although The Dude is trying to tie a lot of different storylines together himself, the only storyline we're familiar with is The Dude's as it's narrated by a strange cowboy whom The Dude meets twice: once in the middle of the film and once at the end. If you want to know how the cowboy's narration serves as a stand-in for the audience, check out our "Production Design" section.
The narrative technique is a departure from many of the noir gumshoe stories, which typically feature first-person narrators saying things like, "It was a cold and rainy night when the broad first came into my office. She was missing her husband; or maybe he was missing her." But The Dude doesn't narrate his own story, either because he's too lazy or because the Coen Brothers wanted the audience to feel even more confused than The Dude, if such a thing is even possible.
The Big Lebowski is first and foremost a comedy: it wants to make its audience laugh, and laugh we do. The Big Lebowski derives its humor from the witty absurdity of its script and the truly crazy nature of its characters. A Vietnam vet bowler who "doesn't roll on Shabbos"? A total slob who laments that "that rug really tied the room together"? An over-the-top bowler who dresses in skin-tight jumpsuits, licks his bowling balls, and threatens his opponents—and calls himself The Jesus? That's the kind of absurd humor that's the Coens' specialty. There is lots of speculation about symbolism in the film (Shmoop's included), but the Coens enjoy throwing random things into their films just to see what happens. They totally deny any deliberate use of symbols; it's all for fun.
While The Big Lebowski is more highbrow fare than something like, let's say, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, it's still got plenty of moments of truly inspired slapstick humor. The scene where The Dude tries to intruder-proof his home only to discover that his door opens the wrong way—slapstick. The scene where Walter takes a crowbar to the wrong car—that's gotta be slapstick.
Crime films usually involve some kind of high-stakes mystery. Will Brad Pitt and George Clooney successfully rip off this casino? Will Scarface bury his head in a mountain of cocaine? Will the Godfather be disappointed by just one or all of his gangster sons?
There are definitely crime genre elements in The Big Lebowski. There's mistaken identity, a kidnapping, and some very angry German nihilists. The Dude is charged with solving the mystery of who kidnapped Bunny Lebowski and why Jackie Treehorn's thugs had to, well, micturate all over his rug. But the crazy comedic elements permeate the plot and make the criminal plot pretty ridiculous. We're just along for the ride.
Satire is sort of like comedy's adult sibling: grown up, sophisticated, and capable of getting laughs from people who aren't either tipsy or 12 years old. Satire aims to make fun of human foibles by exposing them as absurd.
The Big Lebowski satirizes gun-crazy conservatives through the character of Walter, whose enthusiasm for the concealed carry of weapons results in him pulling a pistol on a fellow bowler. We also see the super rich ridiculed in the person of Jeff Lebowski, a millionaire who can't even manage his own money, much less his marriage, and whose personal assistant may be a hyper-attentive alien who's just vacationing on earth. He's a holier-than-thou type who's rotten to the core.
But the film doesn't spare left-leaning slackers like The Dude, either. Through his laziness, drug nostalgia, and disdain of "the square community," The Dude is repeatedly skewered as a symbol of the hippie generation from the '60s and '70s. And Maude Lebowski and her arty world are skewered as pretentious and too obscure to even try to understand.
The film also satirizes the film noir mystery genre it tries to emulate. As David Edelstein of The New York Times put it:
The central joke—the raison d'être—of "The Big Lebowski" is a disjunction. The Coens take a disheveled stoner layabout, the former 60's activist the Dude—seen mostly in baggy shorts, sandals, an oversize T-shirt through which his gut is visible, often sucking a joint, mixing a white Russian or lying on his rug with headphones listening to bowling competitions or whale songs—and make him the gumshoe protagonist of a convoluted Raymond Chandler-style Los Angeles mystery-thriller in the tradition of "The Big Sleep." (Source)
Even some specific plot points from other noir films are turned on their head. For example, in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, a character rubs a pencil over a notepad that someone had previously written on to try to see what had been written; he gets information that helps him locate a missing woman. When The Dude sees Treehorn scribble on a notepad and run out of the room, he does the same; it's the first time he's actually taken any initiative to figure out what might have happened to Bunny. And what does he get? A pornographic doodle of a giant Johnson.
And last but not least, there's the satrirical dig at the classic noir voiceover, as the narrator loses his train of thought midway through the intro.
The title is the name, or rather nickname, of a character in the movie, the wealthy Jeff Lebowski. But it's also a reference to the Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep. The Big Sleep, which was made into a very famous film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1946, is one of Raymond Chandler's best known novels. Like The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep is set in L.A. and features a dense and confusing mystery that needs to be solved by a lovable, hard-bitten antihero. The Coens said they were using this film as a model for tone and plot.
As far as endings go, The Big Lebowski's is probably one of the more satisfying. The Dude solves the mystery, defeats the Big Lebowski, and gets rid of those pesky German nihilists. Everything could be tied up with a neat little bow if it weren't for Donny's tragic passing. Rest in peace, Donny.
And, of course, the Dude can return to his favorite place: the bowling alley.
In the final scene, The Dude has his last conversation with the cowboy narrator. This is where The Dude utters the classic line: "The Dude abides." It's a reference to Ecclesiastes 1:4 in the Bible: "One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever." Translation? Things may change and get crazy around him, but The Dude is still The Dude.
Now, the movie takes on a super cosmic-psychedelic view of the universe: The Dude's predicament is one in a sea of predicaments, we are all grains of sand on the mighty beach that is the cosmos.
Everything is nothing and nothing is everything, man.
While we're on the subject, it's worth mentioning that Walter's Judaism (and the Coens') may be reflected in the cowboy. Some people—like the author of this article—have posited that the Stranger is actually a religious figure of some kind: either God—atching and narrating as he does—or Elijah, the Jewish mythic figure who wanders the earth and declines to show up every Passover.
The Big Lebowski got an R rating because it's chock full of drugs, liquor, curse words, guns, and sexual situations. Even though kids today have probably seen everything, nobody wanted to expose their children to adult themes like these way back in 1998.