The Big Lebowski: An Object at Rest…

Preface:


This article is about story structure. To maximize your enjoyment and understanding, you may want to read this article that explains my preferred method of structural analysis.


Intro:

The Big Lebowski is an iconic 1998 film by the Coen brothers. It appears to break the rules of structure, but like every beloved story I’ve looked at that seems to break the rules, it actually just applies them masterfully over and over again in such a way that the whole has an interesting structure that feels different from other films, but the parts are satisfying traditionally structured substories in their own right. This is the vital lesson: what makes a story is a hero desiring something, entering the Unknown, struggling to get what they want, and returning to the Known having been changed by their experience. What they desire doesn’t have to be an infinity stone, or destroying the One Ring. Maybe all they want is a new rug. And where they go doesn’t need to be ten thousand leagues under the sea, or an alien planet. Maybe they just need to go to a rich guy’s house. Any desire can be a good motivation for the right character, and any Unknown can be a good challenge.

The film’s protagonist, “the Dude” doesn’t want much, but what he does want, he pursues doggedly. The Dude wants to be unburdened, but is actually pretty irritable. Many things annoy him: squares like Lebowski, his friend Walter, rival bowlers, almost any form of stress. He’s always working hard to be at ease. He’s a hero who, over the course of his story, puts his burden down at every available opportunity, but what’s gone wrong in his world will not let him rest until he sets things right. Just when he settles into his bathtub, gets his whalesong tape playing, and begins sparking one up, something else comes crashing into the Known that sends him back out in pursuit of his chill.

Normally, I’d format a structure breakdown for a film with one big story circle, but the Big Lebowski isn’t a normal story. It’s actually a nine episode satirical detective noir told in the form of a two-hour movie. The Dude is not a man that likes to spend time in the Unknown, unless maybe the Unknown is an acid trip or a bowling showdown with Jesus Quintano. He is a very reluctant hero, and so he is constantly returning from the Unknown to relax and re-Duderize.

Instead of one grand journey into the Unknown, The Big Lebowski is a series of smaller misadventures tied together by a complex plot, multiple antagonists with hidden motives, and a constant oscillation of the story circle.


1. YOU - The Carpet Pissers:


YOU – The Dude picks up white Russian ingredients at the Grocery store. He returns home, where he is assaulted by a pair of goons. They interrogate him. They say they want the money his wife Bunny owes their boss. The Dude has no idea what they’re talking about. They piss on his rug, then realize that his house looks pretty crappy for a rich guy. Turns out the Dude shares his birth name with another Jeffrey Lebowski. They leave.

NEED – Now the Dude’s got no rug, and it really tied the room together. He complains to his friends Walter and Donny at the bowling alley. Walter, a passionate Vietnam vet, encourages the Dude to hold the Big Lebowski responsible: his wife’s debts brought the carpet pissers into the Dude’s life, and therefore Lebowski is responsible for the rug.

Walter is essential to the Dude’s misadventures. Without his impulsive, overconfident Veteran companion, the Dude doesn’t work as a character. Walter exists to escalate the situations that the Dude wouldn’t. Without Walter there’s no ringer for the ringer. Without Walter, the showdown with Larry the teenage car thief ends with the Dude calmly leaving. Without Walter, the tyrannical Big Lebowski isn’t cast down from his wheelchair. Without Walter there’s no showdown with the Nihilists. And as we see here, without Walter, the Dude would never have even gone to his fateful meeting with Jeffery Lebowski.

GO – The Dude goes to the Big Lebowski’s mansion.

SEEK – He gets a tour from Brandt, Lebowski’s assistant. The Dude learns of all his homonymous better’s achievements.

FIND – Finally, the Dude is granted access to the wheelchair-bound Lebowski’s office. He requests that Lebowski replace his rug, since it was Lebowski’s wife’s debts that brought a torrent of thug urine upon it.

TAKE – Lebowski chastises the Dude for being a freeloader and refuses to replace the rug.

RETURN – On his way out, the Dude lies to Brandt, telling him that Lebowski said he could have any rug he wants.

CHANGE – Simple change. All is “right” in the Dude’s world once again. He’s back at the bowling alley embroiled in the petty dramas of his compatriots.


2. NEED - The Kidnapping:


YOU – The Dude glories in his new rug. The room is tied together even better than before.

NEED - His rent’s a little overdue, but that’s no big deal. He does tai-chi and sips a white Russian as he listens to his very crowded answering machine. Brandt is calling once again. The Dude is forgiven for the rug, and they wish to hire him.

GO – The Dude goes to the Big Lebowski’s mansion.

SEEK – The Big Lebowski gives a speech about manhood.

FIND – He shares a ransom note with the Dude. Bunny has been kidnapped!

TAKE – “This is a bummer”

RETURN – Brandt offers him the role of courier in the hostage exchange.

CHANGE – Back at the bowling alley, the Dude shows off his new pager to Walter. He’s going to be paid $20K to make the ransom drop. He’s not concerned about the ransomers, figuring that Bunny probably kidnapped herself to try to squeeze more money out of her husband.


3. GO - “Her Life is in Your Hands”:


YOU – The dude chills on his new rug, listening to a recording of a past bowling match. Maude Lebowski appears with a couple cronies and punches him out. He dreams of her flying away from him on the rug.

NEED – He awakens to his pager beeping on the cold, hard, rugless floor. He goes to Lebowski’s mansion once more, where Brandt gives him a briefcase full of money and a carphone. He is to drive North alone and make the exchange for Bunny.

GO – The Dude picks up Walter. Walter has brought a bag full of his dirty underwear to swap for the briefcase so they can keep the money for themselves.

SEEK – The ransomers call. They are spooked by Walter’s presence, but ultimately agree to move forward with the drop.

FIND – Walter throws the underwear bag off the bridge.

TAKE – Walter jumps from the vehicle with his uzi, planning to capture the ransomers and learn of Bunny’s whereabouts. The uzi misfires. The Dude panics as the uzi shoots up his car. He crashes. The ransomers roar off on motorcycles with the dirty underwear. The Dude runs after them with the briefcase, but he’s too late. Thanks to Walter's interference, they failed to make the drop.

RETURN – Back at the bowling alley, Walter calmly bowls. The Dude sits with the carphone ringing endlessly.

CHANGE – The Dude has become convinced that Bunny didn’t kidnap herself and that she's in danger. He’s terrified of facing Lebowski. Outside the bowling alley, they discover that his car, and the briefcase within it, has been stolen.


4. SEEK - Logjammin’:


YOU – The Dude goes home. He is reporting the loss of his car to the police.

NEED – He gets a call from Maude

GO – He goes to Maude’s gallery. Maude is painting abstract art via a zipline.

SEEK – Maude interrogates him about sex and sexuality.

FIND – Maude shows the Dude Bunny and the nihilist’s porno film. She reveals that her father took a million dollars out of the family foundation to pay the ransom. She hires him to get the money back. She also sends him to see a “thorough” doctor for knocking him out at their last meeting.

TAKE – When the dude gets home, he is muscled into Lebowski’s limo, spilling his white Russian. Lebowski is furious that the Dude didn’t deliver the money. The Dude lies about having successfully completed the drop, and says the ransomers are lying because Bunny kidnapped herself and wants more. Brandt hands the Dude an envelope containing a toe with Bunny’s green nail polish. Lebowski tells the Dude that he will be sending the ransomers after him to get their payment.

RETURN – The Dude has coffee at a diner with Walter. Walter is still convinced the hostage situation is fake and asserts that the toe could be anyone’s. The Dude is a sputtering mess. He is bringing back all kinds of harsh vibes from the Unknown into his his once-peaceful slacker existence.

CHANGE – The Dude has been pushed way out of his comfort zone. The Dude is about as un-Dude as he can get.


5. FIND - Unlicensed Amphibious Rodent:


YOU – The Dude has once again retreated home. He’s taking a relaxing bath surrounded by candles. His answering machine beeps. The cops have found his car. The Nihilists arrive. They smash his answering machine, torture him with a ferret, and threaten to cut off his johnson.

NEED – He picks up his car, but the briefcase full of money is gone. Back at the bowling alley, the Dude laments his situation to Walter and Donny. He’s got no rug, his car is wrecked, he has no money, and Nihilists are threatening to castrate him.

The Stranger arrives. A surreal moment for the film’s midpoint. The film’s narrator, concerned his hero has given up, arrives to offer some encouragement. The Stranger also asks him to swear less. The Dude, very cranky and un-Dudely, cusses at him.

After the Stranger leaves, the Dude gets a call from Maude. She’s miffed that he hasn’t gone to see her doctor.

GO – The Dude goes to her gallery.

SEEK – He has an awkward encounter with Knox Harrington.

FIND – Maude points out that Uli, one of the nihilists, who co-starred in Bunny’s porno, would not have kidnapped Bunny, as they were close acquaintances. Uli and the other nihilists were once in a techopop band called Autobahn.

TAKE – Driving home, the dude notices a blue VW bug following him. He drops the roach he’s smoking into his crotch, panics, and crashes his car. Stuffed into the seat is a teenager’s homework.

RETURN - The Dude goes to his landlord’s interpretive dance.

CHANGE - He knows where the car thief lives.


6. TAKE 1 - “This is what happens when you…”:


YOU – The Dude actually seems to care about his landlord’s performance.

NEED – Walter arrives. He has tracked the name on the homework. The car thief is a ninth grader named Larry Sellers.

GO – They head to Larry’s neighborhood. At his house, they see a brand-new corvette parked across the street and assume Larry has purchased it with the stolen money.

SEEK – They enter his home. Walter attempts to make conversation with Larry’s father, who is stuck in an iron lung.

FIND – Larry comes downstairs and looks at them with his dead teenage eyes. Walter decides the only way to teach him a lesson and give up the stolen money is to smash his new corvette with a crowbar.

TAKE – A man runs screaming out of a nearby house. The corvette is his. He takes the crowbar from Walter and begins smashing the Dude’s car.

RETURN – They eat burgers and drive home in the Dude’s windowless car.

CHANGE – The Dude tells Walter he’s not allowed to help any more.


7. TAKE 2 - “Stay Out of Malibu”:


YOU – The Dude nails a board to his floor so he can easily wedge his door with a chair.

NEED – The door swings open. The Dude forgot his door opens out. The carpet pissers are back. Jackie Treehorn wants to see him.

GO – He arrives at a party at Jackie Treehorn’s.

SEEK – Treehorn says he wants to hire the Dude to get back the money that Bunny owes him.

FIND - Treehorn drugs the dude, and we are presented with “Gutterballs” the Dude’s erotic bowling dream about Maude.

TAKE – The dream becomes a nightmare. The nihilists are chasing him with scissors. The dude regains consciousness on the edge of a highway in Malibu, where the cops pick him up. He is thoroughly chewed out by the Malibu chief of police and struck in the face with a coffee mug. Then on the way home, he’s kicked out of his taxi for hating on the Eagles.

Bunny drives by with all ten toes!

RETURN – He gets home. His house is wrecked.

CHANGE – Maude is waiting for him. She seduces him!


8. RETURN - “A Ringer for a Ringer”:


YOU – In the aftermath of their lovemaking, they converse. She reveals that her father is not a self-made man. Their family’s wealth was her mother’s.

NEED – The Dude has an epiphany! He takes charge of the situation for the first time and calls Walter. He needs a ride.

GO – On the way to meet Walter, he catches the detective in the blue VW that’s been following him.

SEEK – In an IHOP, the forlorn Nihilists sit with a woman…missing a toe.

FIND – As the Dude and Walter drive, the Dude explains his whole misadventure. The Big Lebowski took the million dollars from the foundation and kept it for himself! He gave the Dude a fake briefcase because he didn’t want Bunny back. Walter substituted a fake for a fake!

TAKE – The Dude and Walter confront Lebowski. Walter thinks Lebowski is faking his paraplegic condition. He picks up Lebowski and drops him on the floor. The Dude is mortified.

RETURN – Back at the bowling alley.


9. CHANGE - You’re Back in Your Element:


YOU – They leave the bowling alley.

NEED – Donny has a heart attack. They call 911.

GO – They go to a funeral home to collect Donny’s ashes.

SEEK – They haggle with the funeral director over the price of urns.

FIND – having put Donny’s ashes in a coffee can, they stand on bluffs above the ocean. Walter gives a heartfelt, if Vietnam war-centric memorial.

TAKE – Walter spreads the ashes into the wind. They blow back into the Dude’s face. The Dude loses his temper and begins cursing at Walter, but ultimately, they embrace and cry for their fallen friend.

RETURN – At the bowling alley, the Dude has a final meeting with the Stranger.

CHANGE – The Dude abides. He’s back in the zone. He’s recentered. He’s free of another attachment: he’s given up on his silly dream of getting his rug replaced.


Conclusion:


There is so much more to The Big Lebowski than its structure. The film is full of glorious moments and masterful film techniques. Non-sequitur monologues from hilarious supporting characters. A local league rivalry that is never fully paid off. Reverent shots of bowling alleys and the portly athletes that dwell within. Brilliant editing and scene transitions. Surreal dream sequences. These are the moments that have caused The Big Lebowski to be immortalized in our consciousness. We don’t remember this film for its interesting and excellent structure, and yet without its structure, we would have forgotten it by now. All those glorious moments and the overly-complex plot would jumble together into an incoherent mess. Structure is the universal language of story. It helps other people readily make sense of your crazy ideas. It helps them navigate the world you've built. It helps them connect with your characters and their drives. The Big Lebowski, without good structure, wouldn't be the cultural touchstone it has become.




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