Cannabis isn’t the reefer madness your grandma made you believe! Welcome to Higher Education, a column that investigates – and destigmatizes – marijuana in movies.
The Big Lebowski is a movie that represents a lot of things to a lot of people. For those who abide by the philosophy set by Jeff Bridges’ iconic character The Dude, the movie is a way of life. For others the film can be educational, an opportunity to get hip to concepts of nihilism or post-Reagan era materialism as you dig into The Big Lebowski’s rich subtext on everything from the Gulf War to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. The University of Miami even offered a college course dissecting all of the academic responses to the film. But Joel and Ethan Coen‘s cult classic has allowed for so much critical analysis that it can be easy to forget it’s also one of the best stoner films ever made.
But what makes it a stoner film? Sure, we watch characters smoke grass on screen, but The Big Lebowski doesn’t completely emulate the image you may have in your head of canna-comedies featuring twenty-somethings running around getting weed, getting munchies, and getting out of trouble. But it does still exemplify the essential tenets that make up all stoner films: a relaxed pace, unique humor, stylized visuals, and what I’ll describe as “marijuana mysticisms.”
The best way to describe The Big Lebowski’s pace is leisurely. Sure, you can read it as a metaphor for the body-altering effects of cannabis, but it’s really just a way for the film to match the energy that The Dude is putting out. He’s got nowhere to rush to, no real responsibilities, so he is able to proudly live life in the present moment with his middle-aged bowling buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi). This is a film that is in no hurry to get to the next scene or even unravel the mystery behind the central kidnapping plot. The Big Lebowski would much prefer to just spend time hanging out with these guys, swapping conspiracy theories, and waiting for their next turn to bowl.
A lot of the humor in stoner comedies can come from cutesy, self-aware jokes that wink at the audience, but The Big Lebowski’s humor stems from being a kind of weed-fueled character study. There are plenty of sharply written, oft-quoted jokes, but my favorite moments come naturally from the actor’s intelligent character work, like David Thewlis’ giggling video artist Knox Harrington and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tightly wound assistant Brandt, down to Jack Kehler’s Marty — The Dude’s landlord — who just wants to be a modern dancer.
This comic moment with Marty, in particular, works so well because it emphasizes what I find to be the heart of the film: the connection and relationships between the central trio of friends. As the landlord capitulates to The Dude’s routinely late rent, he sheepishly invites him to his upcoming dance recital so The Dude can give him notes on it. And while the over the top dance is clearly meant to be laughed at by the audience, The Dude, Walter and Donny aren’t laughing. This moment tells us so much more about these characters than any bit of dialogue could. They didn’t ghost the landlord or even look embarrassed to be there. They showed up for their friend. These guys may look like burnouts, but they have unquestioning support for their inner circle in ways those of us with more responsibilities may not.
A film doesn’t need to be Koyaanisqatsi to visually stimulate the cannabis user, but striking imagery is an important quality of the stoner film experience. And while cinematographer Roger Deakins makes every shot in this movie look amazing, it’s the tantalizing Busby Berkeley-esque set pieces at the center of the film’s epic dream sequences that catch the eye of the stoned viewer. With a valkyrie Julianne Moore, monolithic bowling pins, and a literal stairway to heaven, these moments are meant to represent the preconceived notions an abstainer has of what it’s like to get high. Cannabis will never make you hallucinate like you are on acid, but these scenes are intentionally shot to trip out its target audience, aiming to elicit a Keanu Reeves-esque “Woah!” as you watch El Duderino fly gracefully over a starry Los Angeles sky.
But what really blows the stoner’s mind in a movie like Lebowski isn’t the far-out imagery or subtextual humor. It’s those little nuggets of wisdom that characters like Sam Elliot’s nameless stranger impart that allows the audience moments of self-reflection that they can meditate on over future bowls of green. The Big Lebowski has such an aura of “marijuana mysticism” that it’s even spawned an entire Taoist religion called Dudeism.
Their ethos, essentially, is the perennial idiom “stop and smell the roses.” Except rather than just smelling them, you’re encouraged to crush ‘em, roll ‘em, and smoke ‘em. While the pseudo-serious movement’s tongue is planted firmly in cheek, there is still pragmatic advice you can take away from the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. As the Dudeist Priests say,
“Down through the ages, this ‘rebel shrug’ has fortified many successful creeds…The idea is this: Life is short and complicated and nobody knows what to do about it. So don’t do anything about it. Stop worrying so much whether you’ll make it into the finals. Kick back with some friends and whether you roll strikes or gutters, do your best to be true to yourself and others – that is to say, abide.”
The Big Lebowski’s enduring legacy as a cult classic can be attributed to the skill of the Coen brothers and their talented ensemble. But as a stoner comedy, I believe it’s because The Dude makes for such a compelling cinematic pothead. He’s a subversion of the archetypal teenage stoner afraid of growing up that you expect in films like Dazed and Confused. Instead, The Dude is the most self-assured character in The Big Lebowski. We’re attracted to him because we want his confidence, that level of chill that lets him unapologetically be himself.
But marijuana isn’t where The Dude derives his confidence and chill. That comes from not living in the past, something he implores Walter to do throughout the film. We only get snippets of who Jeffrey Lebowski was before The Dude, because he doesn’t dwell on where he came from, but rather where he may be going. It’s my favorite takeaway from The Big Lebowski. A life well-lived is one that exists in the present moment. After all, who has time to look back when you’re facing a future filled with bowling, buds, and blunts?