Cult films often happen by accident and can acquire a following without much explanation. When we latch onto a film we often experience a feeling of community by sharing a way of looking at the world. Films like these feel as if they simply ‘make sense’ for their viewer, as if the filmmakers have reached out to the audience and developed a shared understanding with them. This mutual understanding can become a universal phenomenon; thousands, if not millions, of people invest themselves in a film – take, for instance, The Rocky Horror Picture Show or an even greater phenomenon like Star Wars. But how and why does this cult develop? It is not always a question easily answered; but let’s give it a go by considering the curious case of The Big Lebowski.
Private eyes, femme fatales, crooked businessmen, and ransoms are all classic tropes of film noir. It is a familiar genre that often includes an everyman being thrown into a conspiracy beyond his control that includes manipulative dames in pencil skirts. The Big Lebowski takes these tropes and turns them on their head, mixing in a urine-stained rug, bowling, copious weed, missing toes, and nihilistic Germans. The film is both reassuringly familiar and noticeably different to classic film noir; watching it feels like walking into a familiar room to find it turned upside down. The Big Lebowski is not alone as a cult film that plays with genre conventions; it is the homely familiarity and striking difference that often forms the basis of cult appreciation.
People love The Big Lebowski because they love its characters. While no doubt odd, they offer an exciting perspective on a world that can feel boring and familiar. They are voiced with infectiously relaxed dialogue, which is privileged above plot, helping us to identify with their personalities and quirks; the Dude is often stumbling over thoughts, ideas, and language with an endearing slur of “ya knows” that suggest that he is not at ease with the seriousness of his situation. The lack of a clear resolution enables the film to constantly revolve around the Dude and company; his initial quest seeking compensation for his rug is never fulfilled, but there is no denying that for him and for us the journey is one hell of a trip.
The Dude, His Dudeness, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into “the whole brevity thing” lies at the centre of the Coens’ mystery and represents a key factor in the cult nature of the film. He has a charming relatability and opposes most of what stands for normality, but does so in an infectious and persuasive way. His laziness, his profanity, his rejection of responsibility and his general carelessness are familiar to many viewers and, along the way, accidentally inspiring. We acquire a strange admiration for the dude and followers of the film find traces of themselves in him, or aspire to live by him, prioritising his cool philosophy over the rigidness that determines the world. We idolise the Dude because he cares so little; those who live by him wish they could replicate that lack of responsibility, and some actually do.
Dudeism: some may be familiar with the term, some may not. Dudeism, or the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, is a religion born from The Big Lebowski. There are currently over 300 000 ordained Dudeist priests around the world; dude, that’s a lot of signed-up fellow Dudes and Dudesses. The purpose of the religion is to encourage members to lead a righteous life under the guidelines of the Dude. If there was ever a sign of a film having a cult following it’s surely inspiring an entire religion to form in its image.
The philosophy of The Big Lebowski and Dudeism more generally is essentially a form of neo-Buddhism that promotes a mentality of ‘easy-goingness’ and ‘taking it easy’ which are fundamental to both faiths. For example, when Walter tells the Dude “Dude, you’re being very un-Dude” he is referring to him losing his temper when level-mindedness will return him to his spiritual self. When the Dude retorts “Yeah, well, the Dude abides” he is demonstrating a state of personal enlightenment; no matter what external difficulties he finds himself in, he will always abide because internally he is prepared and calm. Finally, the need for his rug is gone; in Buddhism there is no attachment to material things because value is measured differently. The same can be said for Dudeism.
As well as spawning its own religion, The Big Lebowski has inspired an annual festival called Lebowski Fest; this is a chance for all the fans, known as Achievers after Lebowski’s urban achievers, to gather and share their appreciation of the film and the way of life that it promotes. The event has been attended by the Coen brothers and actors Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, and Steve Buscemi. This reflects one of the reasons this film has become so popular: audiences can feel as if they’re spending time with friends, not characters. The film’s cyclical structure leaves it open-ended which allows it to acquire different interpretations even once the film is over. Sam Elliott’s voiceover in fact creates a myth around the Dude in the way he frames the story; it is the same myth that the film’s cult following is based on, The Story of the Dude. It’s not easy to explain cultdom, but it’s a fascinating thing to see take shape; The Big Lebowski is a perfect example of such a film.
Now, “let’s go bowling.”