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.
The Coens famously based The Dude on Jeff Dowd, an indie film producer who was also a prominent antiwar activist in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Dude, though, doesn’t seem to have any particular political convictions remaining in 1991. He casually brags about having been a member of “The Seattle Seven” (which Dowd actually was), and a co-author of “the original Port Huron Statement, not the compromised second draft.” But judging by his life of bowling, booze, and weed in The Big Lebowski, The Dude’s been coasting on his reputation as a radical for years. And despite how he pitches himself as a mellow, live-and-let-live kind of guy, he frequently gets flustered and testy — usually when irritated by Walter.
The No-Longer-Silent Majority
In 1969, President Richard Nixon gave a speech where he used the term “silent majority” to describe conservative Americans who were concerned about crime, drugs, sexual liberation, and antiauthoritarian youth, but who didn’t have a voice in the liberal mass media. By 1991, after eight-plus years of Reagan/Bush, the tide had turned, and rich businessmen like The Big Lebowski’s other Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) felt comfortable enough in their positions to declare that the culture war was over and that “the bums lost.” There’s an ironic twist though: The “big” Lebowski married into money, rather than accomplishing anything himself. He’s a carryover from the Reagan years (with a photo of Nancy on his wall), proudly boasting of an identity he never really earned.
The film’s oddest characters are a trio of self-described “nihilists,” who used to be in a Kraftwerk-esque technopop/krautrock band, and who in the early ‘90s scrape by on the fringes of L.A.’s high society. Like a lot of people in The Big Lebowski, the Germans do pretty much as they please, and then retroactively justify it as being part of some larger set of principles. Because they don’t slot easily into the “establishment versus revolutionary” dichotomy that fills up so much of this movie, the heroes don’t know quite what to think of them — aside from Walter, who instinctively files them under “Nazis.” (“F*cking Germans,” he mutters. “Nothing changes.”)
“The Parlance Of Our Times”
When The Dude meets his namesake’s artsy daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), she speaks to him an elevated, monotone, rapid-fire manner, except when she drops in words like “banging” — and dubs them “the parlance of our times.” Yet neither Maude nor anyone else in The Big Lebowski uses much ‘90s slang. Instead, the characters toss around words like “bones,” “clams,” “shamus,” “goldbrick,” and “Chinaman” (though as Walter’s quick to point out, in the P.C. ’90s, that’s “not the preferred nomenclature”). They lack a language that’s contemporary, and suited to the world they’re actually in.
The movie’s complicated kidnapping/ransom plot eventually leads The Dude and Walter to the home of ailing TV writer Arthur Digby Sellers, who penned 156 episodes of a show called Branded!. Based in part on a real ’60s western, the Lebowski version of Branded! (like the original) follows the lone survivor of “Bitter Creek.” The Dude sings a snippet of the theme song, which suggests a combination of The Rifleman and The Fugitive: a Western with a wandering hero. We also know that the series is one of Walter’s favorites (“especially the early episodes”). It’s telling that one of the most prominent pieces of popular culture mentioned in this entire film seems to be nearly three decades old, and was written mostly by a man who in 1991 is incapacitated, in an iron lung.
Apart from the Gulf War, the other area where the 1991 setting matters most is in the few moments when “modern” technology enters the picture. That’s “modern” as in cellular phones that are the size of a satchel, and fuzzy videotapes containing cheap pornography. No one in The Big Lebowski seems too happy with how the communication and entertainment industries are progressing, either. For his part, The Dude looks with longing at Maude’s record collection and mutters, “I miss vinyl.” Adult film producer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) laments how sleazy his product has become in the VHS era, while also suggesting that “interactive erotic software” is the “wave of the future.” Whatever tech is featured in this movie, it nearly always looks worse than what it replaced. (This would’ve been less true if the Coens had set the story in the year they filmed it, by the way.)
Aside from a ZZ Top cover of “Viva Las Vegas” and The Gipsy Kings’ flamenco take on “Hotel California” — both covers of older songs, please note — nearly all of the music in The Big Lebowski dates back to The Dude and Walter’s heydays. There’s nothing that screams “1991.” The most prominent songs on the soundtrack are by Bob Dylan and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition. Even when The Dude’s car gets stolen, he’s mostly worried that he might lose his Creedence Clearwater Revival cassettes. And speaking of that car….
The 1972 Pontiac LeBaron
…is there a better symbolic representation of The Dude’s life (and vanishing lifestyle) then the way that one of his major links to the past gets swiped, wrecked, defecated in, and burned over the course of this movie?
The biggest walking anachronism in The Big Lebowski is the film’s narrator: a tall, mustachioed “Stranger” played by Sam Elliott. With his cowboy hat, his laconic drawl, and his thirst for “a good sarsaparilla,” The Stranger is a typically off-the-wall Coens creation, presumably thrown into the mix just because the brothers found the whole idea funny. But he’s not absurd-for-absurdity’s-sake. This is a movie about people yearning for some kind of sturdy, classic tradition to claim as their own, be it Walter clinging to the Judaism he converted to for his ex-wife, or The Dude casually appropriating phrases he hears other people say. (After meeting The Stranger, it’s not long before The Dude’s dropping some of his frontier wisdom into conversation, talking about how, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.”)
That’s why a cowboy makes as much sense in 1991 as a hippie or a nihilist. And that’s why it’s no accident that when The Stranger tries to set the scene at the start of the story, he loses his train of thought, and begins rambling. Even the man who’s supposed to be telling us all about the world of 1991 ultimately can’t figure out what to say about it. Like everyone else in The Big Lebowski, he’s gotten lost in the fog of the present, during his long trip from the past.