Joel and Ethan Coen have been hailed throughout their career for infusing classic movie genres with their own warped sense of humor and visual panache. But they haven’t just been putting their stamp on old Hollywood gangster pictures, Westerns, and the like. They’ve also been offering their own take on the eras that produced them. The Coens have a way of finding the smallest period details — from the hayseed radio stations in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the hula hoop in The Hudsucker Proxy — and using them as symbols for the underlying forces at work in America, from decade to decade. The years when the Coen brothers’ movies take place are never arbitrary, even when they seem… well, odd.
Take The Big Lebowski, a 1998 film somewhat curiously set in 1991. As years go by, and younger generations come to Lebowski for the first time, they may not even notice the ever-so-slight temporal displacement. After all, this is a movie about the ’90s, made in the’ 90s. Why does it matter that it’s actually a period-piece?
Well, consider this: It was between 1991 and 1998 when most of the cultural and political happenings that now define “the ’90s” as a concept occurred. The Clinton scandals, the O.J. trial, Quentin Tarantino, the explosion of the internet, the dominance of NBC’s “must-see-TV” Thursday night lineup, the death of Kurt Cobain… These weren’t on the horizon circa 1991; they were over the horizon, and all but impossible to see coming.
Instead, when the ’90s began, the long shadow of the Baby Boom generation seemed to be preventing the newly named “Generation X” from forging its own identity. Every major event back then evoked a dated comparison. “Is this our Woodstock?” “Is this our Vietnam?” The justly forgotten 1990 comedy Flashback even had a line about this prominently featured in its trailer, wherein an ex-hippie played by Dennis Hopper insists that in terms of social revolution, “The ’90s are gonna make the ’60s look like the ’50s.” No one knew what the decade was actually going to be; they only knew what they wanted it to be. It was a time without an identity of its own yet, just a lot of remnants of the past that didn’t quite cohere into an identifiable era.
All of that is the backdrop to The Big Lebowski’s shaggy-dog story about a reluctant detective stumbling through a perpetually time-lost Los Angeles. It’s significant that even for a movie specifically set in 1991, the pop culture references are mostly much older. That’s not a case of the Coens being too lazy or too cheap to throw in a Simpsons quote or a Paula Abdul song. The anachronisms are actually on-point. They’re what 1991 was actually like.
The Gulf War
The one major 1991-specific element in The Big Lebowski is the Gulf War, which actually ended in February of that year. In the movie’s opening scene, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is shopping at a supermarket where a TV shows President George Herbert Walker Bush announcing, “This aggression will not stand!” Later, The Dude has a dream where Saddam Hussein is renting shoes to him at a bowling alley. But really, Operation Desert Storm’s biggest presence in the film is in the language and attitudes of The Dude’s Vietnam vet buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), who applies phrases like “a line in the sand” to everyday life. Soon, The Dude’s doing it too, saying, “This will not stand!” and referring to “unchecked aggression,” as though trying to extrapolate some meaning from the United States’ biggest military operation since ‘Nam.