Saturday, September 21, 2013

To achieve or not to achieve? That is, like, the question, man!

"I went out and achieved anyway!" says David Huddleston in The Big Lebowski

"Well, what have you achieved?"
-Bob Barker, talking to a Lebowski fan in an "Achiever" t-shirt
It strikes me as a bit ironic that fans of the Coen Brothers' stoner comedy The Big Lebowski (1998) refer to themselves as "Achievers." At the Lebowski Fest website, home of the annual multi-city festival devoted to the movie and its values, official merchandise includes t-shirts and hoodies with the word "Achiever" on them, and there's a section called Achiever Nation with photos of fans. I was among the interviewees in Mike Chang's documentary The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans, and I belong to a Facebook group devoted to the film called "Shit Yeah, The Achievers!" 

That's a lot of achieving for a film ostensibly devoted to the art of "takin' 'er easy." The film's hero, shambling hippie Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), is defined by his very lack of achievement. One of the most comforting lessons of this film is that a man cannot be judged solely on the basis of his worldly accomplishments. Those who are lauded and respected for their professional triumphs or grandiose acts of public philanthropy may be morally bankrupt, while an unemployed ex-roadie with a penchant for laziness, bowling, and pot may emerge as a modern-day hero, "the man for his time and place."

To properly decode one of the familiar green "Achiever" t-shirts, as Bob Barker was once famously unable to do on The Price is Right, you first need to know that an important element of the film's plot is a fictional charity called the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. This organization is devoted to providing the underprivileged youth of Watts with college educations. 

The film's principal villain, a cranky, wheelchair-bound millionaire (David Huddleston) who shares the name "Jeffrey Lebowski" with its hero, is one of the charity's two trustees, the other being his estranged bohemian artist daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore). The elder Lebowski certainly seems to enjoy the attention and adulation that come with this high-profile position. Mr. Lebowski's office, after all, is cluttered with various trophies and certificates of recognition, and he has mounted photographs on the wall to prove that he has met with Republican politicians and conservative movie stars. 

The elder Jeffrey Lebowski is not a man who administers charity in a humble, anonymous manner. He wants these acts to be formally documented. He strikes a paternalistic pose in a portrait of himself with the underprivileged youth he thinks of as his "children," and he has eagerly participated in photo ops with such luminaries as Nancy Reagan and Charlton Heston. Mr. Lebowski's nervous and fastidious assistant, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), deems it necessary to tell the Dude that his boss met Ronald Reagan but that "unfortunately there wasn't time for a photo opportunity." In Mr. Lebowski's world, the only good deed worth doing is the kind you can thoroughly document and hang on the wall. It's a value Brandt has internalized.

They honored a scumbag.
It is the older, wealthier Lebowski, once honored as "Achiever of the Year" by Variety Clubs International, who introduces the "achievement" motif to the film. Other characters, including Maude, the Dude, and the Dude's belligerent Vietnam veteran sidekick, Walter (John Goodman), utter the word "achiever," but only in reference to the charity and its recipients. Mr. Lebowski, however, works it into his dialogue frequently. 

Commenting on the Korean War injuries that have confined him to a motorized wheelchair, the elder Lebowski tells the younger in their first meeting, "I went out and achieved anyway." After Mr. Lebowski's young wife Bunny (played by Tara Reid and pointedly called a "trophy" by both Maude and the Dude) has supposedly been kidnapped, the blustery old man says that he "can look back on a life of achievement – on challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome." He refers to the kidnappers as “men who are unable to achieve on a level field of play.” 

Later in the film, when the Dude has apparently botched a ransom drop and thus doomed Bunny, Mr. Lebowski testily declares that the younger man has "failed to achieve, even in the modest task which was your charge." Clearly, Mr. Lebowski is a man who neatly divides the world into two categories: achievers and non-achievers.

How strange, then, that the film's biggest proponent of "achievement" is also its most reprehensible scumbag. As we have learned by the end film, Mr. Lebowski is a blustery fraud who pretends to be a busy tycoon and who embarks on a truly vile scheme that more or less amounts to selling his underaged wife for $1 million, embezzling from the very charity he pretends to love, and framing an innocent "sap" for the whole thing.

All of this is done, mind you, out of mere vanity. This man already lives in opulent comfort and receives a "reasonable allowance" from his daughter. What could he possibly need with a million dollars? He just wants some money to call his own, strictly as a matter of male pride. Like the title character in The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Lebowski is ultimately exposed as a humbug, but unlike that ersatz sorcerer, he is not a "very good man" underneath, merely a coward and a thief.

Jackie Treehorn: A faint hint of sulfur in the air?

There are two other characters in the film who mirror Mr. Lebowski in their desire to flaunt their status as social achievers. One is Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), the mysterious Malibu pornographer seemingly modeled after Hugh Hefner. Treehorn is the one who took Bunny Lebowski (nee Fawn Knudsen) and transformed her from a Minnesota farmgirl into a drug-addicted porn star with a “sizable debt.” Besides “treat[ing] objects like women,” Jackie employs two musclebound thugs and does not hesitate to deploy them like attack dogs when needed. 

Jackie is a shady character indeed, perhaps the movie's closest stand-in for Satan incarnate. His dramatic entrance, deep into the movie, occurs at night during a beach party where the only illumination is provided by roaring bonfire. As he slowly emerges from the shadows to greet the Dude (and the audience, since this is filmed as a POV shot from the Dude's perspective), the viewer may detect a faint hint of sulfur in the air. At first, the Dude is impressed by Jackie's "completely unspoiled" home, but our hero shows a Groucho Marx-esque disrespect for Mr. Treehorn's profession.

"How's the smut business, Jackie?" the Dude casually inquires.

"I wouldn't know," responds Jackie. "I deal in publishing, entertainment, political advocacy."

"Which one's Logjammin'?" counters the Dude, cannily referring to one of Treehorn's lowest-common-denominator porn films.

Here, as at the Lebowski mansion, it is outward appearance, rather than inner truth, that seems to matter most. Instead of copping to what he really is, Jackie Treehorn rattles off his socially-acceptable achievements. I am reminded of the late author Robert Anton Wilson's satirical sci-fi book Reality Is What You Can Get Away With. In that singular work, published a mere six years before the release of The Big Lebowski, Wilson imagines a future in which lying or "bullshit" is extinct, and the earnest historians of the future are puzzled by the doublespeak of the Twentieth Century. A representative passage: "Realize that the function of Bullshit lies in concealing the facts, especially uncomfortable facts, and you begin to enter the reality-tunnel of this astounding ancient semantics."

A real reactionary: The corrupt police chief of Malibu, CA

Jackie's subterfuge appears to have worked brilliantly, at least judging by the scene in which the Dude, at the behest of the aforementioned smut peddler, is arrested on trumped-up charges by the Malibu police and taken by squad car to the station house. At the Malibu police station, we meet the bellicose and possibly corrupt chief (Leon Russom), who insults and abuses the Dude in what seems to be a comical SoCal parody of Christ's treatment by the Romans. 

The police chief of Malibu is the third prominent "achiever" in the film, and like the other two, he does not inspire our sympathy. Evoking Mr. Lebowski's ostentatious workspace, the Chief's office is decorated with a whole assortment of plaques and parchments, all attesting to his status as a guardian of law and order, endorsed by the upscale porn-funded "beach community" that bankrolls his petty, small-scale fascism. The good chief also reinforces Jackie Treehorn's vaunted place in society when he soberly tells the Dude, "Mr. Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town. You don't draw shit, Lebowski." It seems that Jackie's considerable financial resources have convinced the local law enforcement – and the community at large – to ignore his blatantly unsavory activities, while the harmless Dude is treated as a menace.

If Mr. Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn, and the Police Chief of Malibu are the pillars of your community, then your community is rotting from the inside out. These men have all “achieved” in ways that are recognized by American society. The duplicitous Lebowski and the venal Treehorn live in fancy houses, surrounded by material comfort and lauded by the world for their "success," while the thuggish police chief wears a badge which designates him as an official gatekeeper of modern civilization. 

The Dude, meanwhile, has very little in the way of extrinsically verifiable status. His wardrobe, vehicle, employment history, and living accommodations are all extremely modest. Repeatedly broken into and vandalized over the course of the film, his bungalow is far from "unspoiled." The collars of his t-shirts sag after decades of washings. He doesn't seem to have held a job in years. And that misbegotten 1973 Ford Gran Torino of his – "green with some brown rust coloration" – takes nearly as much abuse as the Dude himself. All of these factors show us that the Dude is not a man who puts much stake in "achieving."

Yet, when the movie is over, which character would we most like to emulate?