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Decoding The Dude: Academics Tackle “The Big Lebowski” In New Book

Visiting the English Department of a university usually means you're to discuss literature. But my appointment at Ballantine Hall on Indiana University's campus isn't to discuss Chaucer or Keats, but Coen. As in, the Coen Brothers.

I'm meeting Professor Ed Comentale, co-editor of the IU Press book "The Year's Work In Lebowski Studies", a collection of essays analyzing the 1998 cult film The Big Lebowski. Joel and Ethan Coen are the filmmakers behind Fargo, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country For Old Men, but in many ways, Lebowski is their masterpiece.

The film follows Jeffry "The Dude" Lebowski, a 40-something California slacker with a penchant for White Russians and bowling, who gets caught up in a kidnapping plot due to a case of mistaken identity.

But The Big Lebowski is more than just a movie, according to Professor Comentale. "It's a place, it's a watering hole where people who like Westerns and noirs and war flicks and buddy flicks come together and recite lines and share a drink and play games with each other," he said.

And indeed, the plot is somewhat beside the point.

"It seems like most of the plot is there just to hang the characters on, and to hang the dialogue on as well," said Comentale. "The film is known for its one-liners, its wit, its snappy retorts. I think that's what generates a lot of the affection from the fans because it's a film that you can participate in, you can repeat, and you can reenact fairly easily with a bunch of friends."

The Big Lebowski amassed a huge fanbase only after it left theaters.. to say the least. The Church of The Latter Day Dude claims to have ordained over 50 thousand Dudeist Priests to date, and since 2002, the more fervent of fans connect at Lebowskifest, an annual festival started in Louisville, Kentucky.

In 2006, Comentale and University of Louisville professor Aaron Jaffe were invited to present at a conference associated with the festival. The relaxed event was what gave the two academics the idea for the book.

"Firstly, it was done cheaply, at a bowling alley, with bowling alley food, so there were no pretensions about the venue," he said. "And also, in terms of speakers, there was no hierarchy or academic stars. There was also a commitment to be truly interdisciplinary, so we had some people from English, Film Studies, History, Library Science, we had film critics and we really wanted to see how they would speak to each other and what would emerge."

Comentale already had practice applying pop culture to theoretical texts. He'd been using the films of the Coen Brothers to illustrate concepts in the much-dreaded mandatory Critical Theory course he taught to undergraduate English majors.

"We spoke about Blood Simple and Marxist theory, we looked at The Hudsucker Proxy and the capitalist marketplace, we spoke about Fargo and gender and language theory," he said.

The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies is organized in two parts. "If you're looking for a kind of cultural lineage or the DNA of Lebowski, the first half of the book concerns precursors and influences on the film," explained Comentale. "And so it really tracks a long history of dudes in American culture – Rip Van Winkle, Bartleby the Scrivener – basically, historical dudes who refused to act in any way, or maybe even refused to work."

The second half concerns fan behavior, and the activities that surround the film. But Comentale and Jaffe didn't just want to analyze fans – they wanted them to read the book! The editors knew that fans were just like The Dude – laid-back, but not dumb by any means.

"We also needed to make sure it was full of what we'd call Lebowski-speak, sort of the discourse of Dudes," Comentale noted. "It was really important to us to create a smart book that also spoke to the fans of the film and respected both their pleasure, their enjoyment of the film, as well as their intelligence."

Buy "The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies" at Amazon.

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