Last night I re-watched one of my favourite films, The Big Lebowski. This was my old DVD copy that I had put (along with many others) on to a spindle in order to save space. On a small tangent, I have been re-watching a number of my old favourite films recently and finding that I don’t like many of them as much as I used to, if at all anymore. This was not the case with The Big Lebowski and in watching it again, I picked up even more that I had missed in previous viewings.
I first saw the film shortly after it came out and a few years before it became the beloved cult classic it is now. I was not previously (and am not really now), a big fan of films by the Coen brothers so it says a lot that I’m so fond of this one.
What I’m going to attempt to write here has been in my head for quite a while and after making notes a little while back, I saved this until I had re-watched the film to see if I could pick up anything else to support it. I want to argue that Walter Sobchek is the modern United States embodied in one man.
Let’s see how I go arguing this.
Most people love the Dude and while I certainly like the character, I always found Walter the most entertaining and in many ways the most interesting. I’m not aware of what the writers intended when this character was written but I’ve noticed that rather than being one man, he is more a mixture of many.
Before I begin getting the obvious out of the way, I want to make clear that I am looking at Walter in the sense of the modern American man collectively and not necessarily a specific time. This includes aspects of many though I have in mind the conservative working/middle-class type rather than of the coastal elite. Basically a middle-American.
The obvious is that he is overweight, almost irrationally patriotic and as the scene where he pulls out a pistol in the bowling alley demonstrates: very much pro-gun. These are all superficial and though they don’t hurt what I am trying to write, they aren’t really the main things I want to dwell on.
The next thing to notice about Walter is his relationship with his friends and those that threaten them. I have heard it said many times anecdotally that people find Americans irritating and loud when met overseas but warm and hospitable in their own countries. As an example, I have been embarrassed hearing an American talking loudly in a Japanese subway car and my father shared his irritation hearing much the same from the back of a tour bus somewhere in Italy. At the same time, anyone who has experienced the warmth and hospitality from Americans within their borders will wonder how these two experiences could be from the same people.
While we see a lot of the rough edges of Walter during the many “scenes” he makes in the film, we also see that he is warm and loyal to his friends. Even to Donny when he is not impolitely requesting he be silent. We know his heart is in the right place and that he wants to do the right thing however wrongly he goes about it.
This loyalty of character leads neatly to his “ex-wife” who we know little about other than she is Jewish and still in contact with him. Walter apostatized and converted to Judaism when he married her and maintains this faith even though she has abandoned him. This is openly mocked by the Dude in one scene in the film. Walter is also shown looking after her dog while she goes on vacation with her new partner.
I’m not sure what the Coen brothers (who are Jewish), wanted to portray with this, or if they thought anything of it at all. But in recent years I have found it telling the he is being “cucked by a Jew” to use the parlance of our times. To draw this out to modern America, it is hard not to see this as a representation of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Israel is like an adulterous and unappreciative wife to the modern United States which displays unfailing loyalty despite this. In fact to even question this can provoke outrage — and certainly does in Walter’s case.
On a personal level, I have experienced this with many Evangelical Christians but also the way Israel is always brought up during presidential elections as a foreign policy issue. That Jewish holidays are always mentioned despite the Jewish population being a tiny (although significant) minority. One could go even deeper with this mentioning incidents such as the attack on the USS Liberty, but I think that this is established enough with what I’ve already covered without potentially getting into “conspiracy”.
Walter is also a Vietnam War veteran and therefore of a group of infamously mistreated veterans in a horrible, costly war of questionable necessity to say the least. I will insert this here as Walter was sure to insert it whether or not it was relevant to the moment. This feeds into a couple of things. One is Walter’s strong patriotism in the “My Country: Right or Wrong” tribal sense which also applies to his friends. The other actually works with his credulity. Something people usually notice on repeat viewings is the way characters repeat what they hear from others in later scenes. An early example is the Dude repeating the rhetoric of George HW Bush that he hears on a supermarket television to Walter a couple of scenes later. There are many such examples and I noticed another couple I’d missed on re-watching recently too. You will also notice the way Walter will believe things unquestioningly after hearing them from the Dude or someone else. The most important of which is how “she probably kidnapped herself” became a certainty after the first time he heard it.
This again fits in to the credulity of the modern American. The sinister machinations of the elites or the state are irrelevant here. The average American is generally loyal to his country and wants to believe that what it does is right. This naïve trust and loyalty has led the country from one disaster to another all my life and certainly before. This same loyalty consumes the plot of the film as Walter’s certainty leads them through multiple disasters.
Of relevance too is his strong sense of justice and what his buddies “died face down in the mud” for. Walters sense of justice leads the group into the stupefying madness that is the film’s plot. And much like the United States, Walter’s attempts at retribution are wildly disproportionate; involving theft, deception, violence and what-have-you.
The last and probably most amusing aspect I want to point out is Walter’s political correctness. Very early on in the film after the blunted series of blunted outbursts that characterize Walter’s dialogue, he suddenly and eloquently corrects the Dude on his use of the word “Chinaman”. He may have been the first to use the line though I can’t quite recall. In contrast, later in the film he refers to someone as a “kraut” after hearing their name is German (which is supposed to be okay). This also shows despite the vulgar language he uses, he is quite capable of being polite and well-spoken. There are a few other instances in the film that demonstrate this too.
So this ramble brings us to the end of what I wanted to argue. Walter Sobchek is large, strong, temperamental rude and prone to violent and disproportionate outbursts to those who wrong him and those he loves (even when not reciprocal). But he is also shows the naïve loyalty of a puppy dog to those he loves and trusts and is sometimes amazingly credulous. It is hard not to see the modern United States and the collective conscience of it’s people in the same way.
Note: I will certainly be re-reading this and perhaps adding to or changing this in the future. Especially if I see more opportunities to use dialogue from the film.