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Film - "The Big Lebowski" as Postmodern Posterboy (or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Baudrillard) 

Deepsouth v.6.n.1 (Winter 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by
David Larsen

by David Larsen

Victoria University of Wellington

  All rights reserved.


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These experiences described by Jameson and Baudrillard have been associated by Mike Featherstone with a postmodern "aesthetization of everyday life". Featherstone writes the postmodern not as a periodic shift in cultural sensibilities (as Jameson does), but rather hints at an ongoing structural relationship between a Protestant bourgeois, "high Kantian aesthetics (involving cognitive appreciation, distanciation and controlled cultivation of pure taste) and what it denies; the enjoyment of the immediate, sensory, "grotesque" bodily pleasures of the popular classes".15 Featherstone draws a historical descent of these "postmodern" tendencies through the medieval carnival, past Walter Benjamin, George Simmel and Charles Baudelaire's experience of the "dream-worlds" and commodity fetishisms, the "perpetual motion machines" of the great capitalist cities of the mid to late nineteenth centuries with their commodity-sign saturated arcades and simulacra filled World Fairs, and into the qualities contemporaneously celebrated or condemned as the "postmodern".

The schizophrenic condition described with Leftist reservation by Jameson and the bemused exhaustion of Baudrillard, is described by Featherstone, drawing on the work of Scott Lash, as an emphasis on the figural; "primary processes (desire) rather than secondary processes (the ego); images rather than words; the immersion of the spectator and investment of desire in the object as opposed to the maintenance of distance",16 a figural which finds its postmodern heart in the culture of television, cinema, advertising and consumer culture. Featherstone, referring to the work of Mikhail Bahktin and Norbert Elias, finds precursors to the postmodern figural in the Carnival, described as a tradition of "figural aspects, disconnected succession of fleeting images, sensations, de-control of the emotions, de-differentiation".17 The medieval fair "displayed the exotic and strange commodities from different parts of the world and along with a flood of strange signs, bizarre juxstapositions, people with different dress, demeanor and languages, freaks, spectacles and performances stimulated desire and excitement".18

The Big Lebowski derives its postmodern currency from narrating this tension between the tradition of Protestant modernity and its Kantian emphasis on the rational maintenance of a disinterested reflection on a distanced world, and the constant return of what this stance represses - namely the primary processes, intense sensual engagements, and an unreflexive engagement with embodied experience. The Coen's play on this zeitgeist tension, what some social theorists describe as the dilemmas of the contemporary "baroque-modern body",19 in two ways. Firstly, like Jameson and Baudrillard's postmodern subject, the Dude, in his attempt to unravel a correct interpretation of events in order to position himself within a meaningful narrative, constantly falls prey to the seduction of primary process, immersions in the schizophrenic figural, hallucinatory pleasures, visual intensities, drugged lapses, and cognitive fragmentations. Secondly, the Dude as "baroque-modern" is also apparent in his coding as grotesque body, prioritising an unreflexive immersion in his human enfleshment, and thus often finds compromised his ability to engage in distanced reflection on the kidnapping debacle. 

The most memorable of the Dude's immersion in the figural are the two hallucinatory dream sequences, one resulting from being hit over the head by two thugs whilst lying stoned on the floor of his bungalow listening to Bob Dylan on a walkman; the second after being slipped a mickey by the pornographer Jackie Treehorn. These sequences function on a number of levels. Firstly, in their relation to an overarching narrative or plot, they contravene certain classical narrative rules of film. That is, they exceed a narrative function, not moving the story foward but rather situating themselves in a Jamesonesque schizophrenic space and demonstrating an excess of the present. As in literary postmodern artifacts such as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Lebowski is punctuated by events which seek to rupture and undermine a traditional linear narrative, reflecting the informational assault on the late-capitalist subject, where any plausible, linear signifying chain breaks down into a "rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers".20 The Dude, like Pynchon's Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow, is constantly foot-tripped by the figural, moving through a Zone which constantly threatens and often entails a fragmentation of self. Pynchon writes of Slothrop, "he has become one plucked albatross. Plucked, hell - stripped. Scattered all over the Zone. It's doubtful if he can ever be "found" again, in the conventional sense of "positively identified and detained". Only feathers...".21

Secondly, and most importantly in the second sequence, which begins with a mock title ("Gutterballs") and credits, the hallucinatory episodes reflexively point to the very medium in which the story is being presented, that of cinema, as an exemplary postmodern site for the experience of the figural - of an immersion in primary process. Featherstone describes the popular experience of film as a "liminal space...[a] site in which excitement, danger and the shock of the grotesque merge with dreams and fantasies which threaten to overwhelm and engulf the spectator".22 The Dude is made tiny, overwhelmed by a hallucinatory excitement at an infinite row of bowling shoes stretching up to a mysteriously affect-charged moon, presented his shoes by Saddam Hussein (the film is set in 1991), finds himself immersed in a Busby Berkely dance sequence with Maude in Wagnerian Boadecia garb, enjoys a Deleuzian becoming-bowling ball, experiences intense fear at the sight of the nihilists in red lycra suits approaching him with monstrous scissors to "cut off his Johnson", and emerges from this carnivalesque abduction to find himself running disoriented along a darkened road side being pursued by the disciplinary super-ego of a police car.

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15 Featherstone, Postmodernism, p 274.
16 Ibid, p 272.
17 Ibid, p 283.
18 Ibid, p 284.
19 See Mellor and Shilling's Re-Forming the Body, p 160 - 187.
20 Jameson, Postmodern, p 72.
21 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, (London, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1973), p 712.
22 Featherstone, Postmodernism, p 284.