One possible reason the private eye film has always been so resonant with myself might be how closely it aligns with the hero cycle that is supposedly embedded in the psyche of the human condition. In the private eye’s quest into the unknown world through which he ventures in order to find his ultimate boon (in this case, knowledge/truth), all manner of familiar trials and temptations can be found along the way. The Big Lebowski, a movie often claimed to be about nothing, is in fact about something, something quite important and essentially human. It is, like all private eye films, about a hero.
I’m not, of course, talking about an armor-clad, been saving princesses since their balls dropped knight of legends, but rather a hero of the unlikely mold. Private eyes in the classic cinematic sense were never unstoppable dragon slayers. Sure, they could take a punch and wisecrack it off, but they only got a chance to return the punches about half the time. Is “The Dude” asking to take one more look inside his toilet for Lebowski’s money any different than Bogart or any other private eye getting “tuned up” and stoically shrugging it off?
Like any true private eye hero, The Dude gets called to adventure by a crip…er, disabled rich herald. Then, after avoiding the siren call of a thousand dollar blow job offer by the usual nymphomaniac daughter, The Dude is thrust straight into the unknown underworld of the private eye movie. All manner of strange trials persons and temptations are thrust in the path of The Dude, but, like Odysseus, he merely lets himself get blown from encounter to encounter until he ends at that place all heroic roads end: the truth.
That’s probably enough with the hero cycle comparisons…hell, the whole thing is vague enough that it can be applied to about anything. The real point here is that, The Big Lebowski is not a movie about nothing. Raymond Chandler, to whom the Coens were obviously paying homage here, wrote the same kind of tales of men caught up in a web of intrigue, the inner workings of which remained just beyond their understanding for much of the story. Just because The Dude is a lazy slacker who seems to care more about the rug that tied his room together than any real truth doesn’t mean that this is a new story in familiar private eye clothes. The Dude fumbles his way through The Big Lebowski in the same way that Philip Marlow fumbles through The Big Sleep. The world of the private eye film is supposed to be just beyond the comprehension of the protagonist, which is, of course, what the Coens were playing at by making their main character so oblivious that he doesn’t even know which way his front door opens.