The Big Lebowski and Philosophy II

[Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part review of the subject matter discussed in The Dude and The Zen Master. Part one can be found here.]

All wars, all conflict, can be resolved, and redefined, through interconnectedness—

“You might think it would be wonderful if we could go in and extract all the evil people out of this world, like we extract cancer out of a body,”  Jeff Bridges says in the collection of philosophical anecdotes The Dude and the Zen Master he made with Zen master Bernie Glassman. “But as Solzhenitsyn says, evil runs through all our hearts, and who wants to cut a piece of her own heart? We are part of nature and nature uses violence and war to make its blade sharper and sharper.”

The-Dude-and-The-Zen-Master-Gear-Patrol-FullBridges expands upon this theme by describing cells and magnification, and how the magnification of a cell reveals that every cell involves two parties fighting for survival, and that those parties are both essential components of the same cell. “They are,” in his words, “an interconnected whole fighting for the same thing.” Bridges states that there is order within the perceived disorder of that cell, and if we were able to disrupt that order to such a degree that we were able to kill all of the germs, viruses, and bacteria in our body, we would cease to live. Germs have a right to live too, he concludes, –which when taken to Bridges’ extended analogy between the internal skirmishes that occur within a cell and the wars of human history– reminds one of Rosie O’Donnell’s line: “Terrorists have children too.”

Bridges then speaks about how the fight that occurs within a cell is equivalent to the fights between good and evil that have occurred throughout human history. Within a cell there is the constant division process that occurs in which the organisms fight, and who is right and who is wrong is less important than the fight for survival. When you alter the magnification even more, he says, you could equate that cell to the Earth, in which humans are fighting in the same manner, and each parties believes he is right, and when you alter the magnification even more, you have Space, where the simplistic differences between right and wrong are negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Taking such a philosophical overview of humanity is a wonderful notion, and if everyone agreed to debate the topic in that forum, planet earth would be a wonderful place to live in. Humans have to live on the sphere we call Earth, as opposed to the theoretical one that is a speck in the universe, and doing so requires that we accept the realities of the place where we live in, and it also requires us to do everything possible to maintain livable conditions.

Bridges states that setting that forum to make planet earth a more wonderful place to live in should be the whole idea. He says that we don’t have to accept the realities of the place we live in, and that we can alter it. “Anyone that questions this,” says Bridges, “should look at how President John F. Kennedy set the course for landing a man on the moon.  He said that at one point in our nation’s history, sending the man to the moon seemed a far-fetched idea, until the president changed the conversation by informing the nation that it would be done. After he did this, the conversation centered around how it was going to be done, not if it was going to happen. ”

Bridges general approach to war, conflict, and his specific approach to the attacks on 9/11/01, is that we should try doing nothing to see how that works. On the subject of 9/11/01, Bridges states that he was all for doing something to those responsible for that act, but that he didn’t agree that that something should involve such a global war on terror. He says that we should’ve spent more time examining our role in 9/11/01, and that we should’ve apologized for our role in making them angry. As anyone that has read the history of terrorism vs. America knows, we did try the tactic of holding those responsible in criminal courts, after the first World Trade Center attack, and al Qaeda saw that as a sign of weakness. They called us a “paper tiger” and decided to explore the idea of doing something more. We have tried apology tours to quell the animosity the world is purported have for America, and humanity has also tried appeasing the evil intentions of those that plan to do us harm. These procedures have not worked. We should, of course, continue to try every method at our disposal for maintaining peace on our planet, and just because one measure did not work, with one lunatic, doesn’t mean that it won’t with another, but there is a point where Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity comes into play, and Bridges fails to incorporate that definition into his line of reason.

A philosophical inconsistency later arises when Bridges begins speaking on the subject of slavery. He states that when we were forming our Constitution, it was a difficult chore for our Founders to find unity on the many subjects before them, but the issue of slavery proved to be so divisive that it threatened to end the proceedings, so they decided to shelve it for a later date. They decided that all of the other aspects of our founding were so important that they couldn’t be derailed.  This, of course, came back to bite the nation in the butt, and Bridges believes that if the Founders had tackled this issue at the time, there may not have been the sense of disenfranchisement among blacks that lives on to this day. By the same token, it could be said that if we initiated a more global war on terror after the first World Trade Center attack, the incident that occurred on 9/11/01, may never have happened. The fact that we followed what Bridges still believes is the desired course of action, after the first World Trade Center attack came back to bite us in the butt.  

If peace could be attained in a manner where all the good guys had to do was view the human characteristics of their opponent as nothing more than an organism that wants to survive, and that that opponent would then appreciate that acknowledgement so much that they sat down at a peace accords table to engage in a serious and genuine discussion of their grievances, the Earth would be a more wonderful place to live on. Everyone wants to live in that world. Viewing this world through that lens, however, neglects the irrational component of evil people. Why would anyone want to set out hurt another person? They do. It’s irrational, but they do. Yet, it appears that ridding the world of evil, in this manner, would be like cutting out a piece of our heart out.

The danger of viewing evil people through such a simplistic lens occurs when we believe those humans, that happen to be evil, are evil. The thoughtful approach suggests that we view these people as people too when they enter into a Munich Agreement. It’s simplistic to view the individual that just wants Poland and Czechoslovakia as evil, and it’s much more thoughtful to pare back our forces and draw down our defenses with the knowledge that peace is the solution. The danger occurs when that evil person leaves that peace accord, and joins their generals at the planning boards with the knowledge that they acted their part so well that we’re now a little more vulnerable to their forceful persuasion. 

In a certain magnification of the historical lens, everything Adolf Hitler did may have been evil, but in another setting, say his, they could be viewed in another manner. Did Hitler wake up in the morning and think, I’m going to do something evil today, or was he eating apple fritters and drinking cocoa with his wife and dog? Hitler was a person too, and he had a quest for survival that was similar to the quest of germs, viruses, and bacteria. They don’t invade our body’s cells with evil intentions. They just do what they do. If we happen to get cancer, as a result of their victory over our white blood cells, we may consider that a bad thing, but if we alter the magnification, and attempt to view it from their perspective, we could view it as their victory.

Modern day evil people may go home at the end of the day to watch Happy Days reruns, and laugh with their kids bouncing on their knees, but that doesn’t change the fact that the actions they engaged in that day left their streets littered with dead people, homeless people, and a greater portion of their population starving than there were the day before. If we view that from a different magnification, an objective view that accounts for their definition of these actions, we could see the mass slaughter of civilians as a victory for their cause.  It’s all relative. 

If you’re one that lives with the relative notion that murdering an estimated eleven million people is a bad thing, or that a leader’s policies led to the mass starvation of his people, then you have to be willing to set a course of actions in motion that will, in a temporary fashion at least, set aside the fact that these evil people are just human, with kids, for at least as long as it takes to either contain their evil, or to set a precedent in the minds of evil men that their evil acts will no longer be tolerated. 

Some peacenik did not abide by the methods of achieving peace that The Dude did. His method alluded to the idea that the best way of achieving peace was through strength, and his record proved to be more successful than The Dude’s, Neville Chamberlain’s, or any other theoretical attempts at achieving peace in our time. We won’t talk about that person though, because he was icky, and his actions portend that there are icky, evil people that require alternative methods.  

The Big Lebowski and Philosophy

Throw the [Damned] Ball

Throw the [damned] Ball is the title of the first chapter of Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman’s collection of philosophical anecdotes: The Dude and The Zen Master. This particular chapter details the deliberations that The Honeymooners character, Ed Norton, would go through when preparing to do things that the character Ralph Kramden would instruct him to do. When Kramden would instruct Norton to sign a document, for example, Norton would flail his arms out a number of times, and go through a number of other, hilarious deliberations in a presumed search for that perfect, inner place he had designed for signing a document that Kramden informed him was important. The joke was that it was just the signing of a document, but that the Norton character believed that it warranted a degree of importance he had a difficult time finding. These deliberations would carry on for an extended amount of time that the Ralph Kramden character found so exhausting that he would end up exploding with a “Just sign the thing!” comment.

Bridges brought this scenario to a bowling coach that was hired to inform the cast of The Big Lebowski on the mechanics of bowling in a manner that would appease most bowling aficionados that happened to see the film. The deliberations that the bowling coach went through –pausing to include the necessary notes on the intricacies involved– carried out in a manner that Bridges found reminiscent of Norton’s deliberations, until Bridges said:

Anyone ever tell you to just throw the [damn] ball?!”

The bowling coach’s friends found that response hilarious. The bowling coach, being a bowling guy and a philosophy freak, had, at one point in his life, tried to find the perfect harmony between mind and body before throwing the ball down the lane. This search, he confessed, could take as long as five minutes, until his friends shouted: “Just throw the [damn] ball!”

The import of the tale is that some of the times, we can get so locked up in our search for perfection that we end up forgetting to just do whatever it is we’re trying to do. And, it could be added, the repetition of doing whatever it is we’re trying to do that can prove to be far more instrumental to learning than thinking about it can.

We all fall prey to trying to perfect what we do by doing something different or something more this time out to rectify, or improve upon, what we did in other attempts to make it better, or more. We’ve all written resumes, reports for bosses, and simple emails to friends, and we’ve all tried to do more in the present than we did in the past to make it more … More funny, more interesting, and more educational.

There is this desire, in all of us, to add the perfect cherry atop the pie, or if that particular cherry isn’t perfect enough, we may try adding another cherry, and another cherry, until the pie is so perfect that it’s now overloaded with cherries, and all of the individual cherries have lost that unique, special, and tantalizing quality that one cherry can have when it sits upon a pie.

“There is always more information out there,” Bernie Glassman said. 

Writers often have to fight this urge to add more, when they’re editing an essay, a short story, or a novel. All original drafts are incomplete in some way, but the question every writer struggles with is the idea of whether that incompleteness is as a result of quantity or quality? Most writers want their pieces to be more: more persuasive, more provocative, and more relatable, but as we all know more is not always more.

More characterization can feel necessary when a fiction writer is attempting to make their character more relatable, and it may be in some cases, but in other cases it can be redundant, counterproductive, and superfluous information that ruins the flow of the material.  More is not always more.  Some of the times, it’s too much.

This brings us to the fundamental question of when do we reach a point where completion can be considered established? I’ve often found a unique harmony in three. One piece of information, or one example of a pro or con, doesn’t feel like enough to establish a relationship with the reader; two feels incomplete in ways that are difficult to explain, but you know it when you see it; and four feels like it’s too much more. Three, in most cases, has a harmony that rounds a point out. I’m sure if I discussed this predilection with a therapist, they would inform me that most of the fairy tales my mom read me contained the magical power of three. I don’t know if that’s the answer, but I do think there is some form of subconscious power in three.

“We’re all looking for perfection,” Bridges says to conclude the Just throw the [damn] ball chapter, “but perfection is often a past and future tense that we’re not going to achieve in the present.”  

Bridges speaks about the difference between reading movie scripts in rehearsal and reading lines before the camera. He says that when he reads a chunk of dialogue in rehearsal, he might walk away thinking that he nailed it.  If that happens, he might spend the time between rehearsal, and going before the camera trying to memorize the pitch, the rhythm, and the pauses he used when he nailed it.

“Once that camera clicks on,” he says, “it’s almost impossible to nail-it in the exact same manner you did in rehearsal, because the conditions have all changed, and until you can learn to adapt to the current conditions before you, you’ll never be able to repeat the lines with any proficiency.  I nailed it in rehearsal, why can’t I find that same place?

“Because,” he continues, “That place may have never existed, or it may not have existed in the manner you thought it did. A person can go through all of the deliberations of trying to find that exact same, perfect place again, and they can go crazy with the thought that they never will. Some of the times it’s better to just throw the [damn] ball.”

 Be the man they want you to be

Bridges talks about a fan detailing for Bridges the idea that The Dude’s characteristics, are nothing more than a manifestation of another of The Big Lebowski’s character’s needs. The fan said that at one point in The Dude’s life (a theoretical point that preceded the time span of The Dude’s life that was documented in the movie), the Dude became the Dude in all the ways that this Donald character needed a Dude character in his life. The Dude then liked those characteristics so much that he may have incorporated them into his personae. The fan’s suggestion was that we’re all becoming different people at various points in our lives, based on interactions, events, and time. Some of the times, we don’t like those characteristics, and we discard them soon after we’ve fulfilled someone else’s short term needs, but at other times they fit us like a glove, and we incorporate them into our spectrum of characteristics.

When a momentous occurrence happens in one’s life, such as becoming a parent, few can move forward without that event affecting their character in some manner. If this momentous moment doesn’t affect a 180 degree change on us, it changes us in a gradual way that an infrequent visitor of our life may recognize, but those around us do not. We may have had parental characteristics in us before, but they were never tapped, until someone (the child) needed them.

We can try to revert back to that character that our beer drinking buddies knew, but in the aftermath of tapping into those parental characteristics, the beer drinking buddy characteristics feel false. You may want to become that fella that all of your drinking buddies knew, at least for one night, but you have changed in ways that make that character irretrievable. You may not know how much effort your putting into this, but your drinking buddies may pick up on it.

There are also characteristics that we display for the expressed purpose of impressing others. The popular parlance for this is an ‘A’ game. Our ‘A’ game may be something we reserve for our grandmother, prospective employers, or that incredible blonde that walks by our cubicle every day. Some may say that displaying an ‘A’ game, if we reserve it for these temporary moments, is the very definition of phony, but is that always the case? What if, in the course of this temporary display, we find some nuggets of our personality that appeal to us so much that we incorporate them into our spectrum of characteristics in the way the fan suggested the dude did to please Donald. 

We’re all changing, in other words, and we’re all affected by conditions, circumstances, and the people we run across, that we all  achieve some sort of compilation of reactions to the people around us that informs our personality.

That’s just your opinion

The goal of any writer should be to write a book that causes one to think in ways they would not have if they never picked their book up. If this was the goal of the authors of The Dude and The Zen Master, then I say mission accomplished. One glaring example is the That’s just your opinion section.  We hear this often in our culture, when another disagrees with our opinion. My reply has always been, “Of course that’s my opinion. Where do you think I got it?” Glassman’s twist on this trope is that some of the times a person needs to say this to themselves. If that person has failed to the point that they’re devastated by it, it could be said that the nature of that failure is just one person’s, theirs. Others may see our failures, and they might form an opinion of us based on that failure, but people move on. When the smoke of that opinion clears, there is only one opinion that survives, our opinion of ourselves. That opinion, Bernie Glassman says, is still just an opinion, one person’s opinion. If the subject of that opinion can convince themselves that it’s not a fact that they’re a failure, but an opinion, it might help them move on. While this may sound like a bunch of gobbeldy gook to some of us, if it could be used in a productive manner to lead more people to just throw the [damned] ball again without all of the complications of previous failures involved.

True Grit (2010): A Review

Many viewers will be glad to know that the Coen Brothers played True Grit straight. The Coen Brothers did not disrespect the genre, the movie or the elephant in the room: John Wayne. They simply redid a classic.

Those expecting a faithful rendition of Wayne’s 1969 version will be somewhat disappointed. “I won’t watch it,” some have said. “You can’t redo a classic like that,” others have said. I believe that these people are fearful of the mockery, the disrespect, and the inability of modern movie makers to do justice to a western. Most people are tired of seeing their institutions mocked, and they have simply decided that they won’t participate when the opportunity arises for them to make a statement against modern Hollywood. These people do not know the Coen brothers.

For the most part, the Coen Brothers have not taken part in making political statements, and they have not mocked the institutions most of us hold dear. For the most part, in today’s Hollywood, that is a bold statement.

The Coen brothers have, to my mind, proven to be the most adept movie makers of our era. Serious film fans have a difficult time restraining themselves when recommending movies like 2007’s No Country for Old Men.  We could say that that movie won best picture, but most serious film fans don’t regard that as a final stamp of approval anymore. When they hear that these are the same people responsible for Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou? and Barton Fink, they start to come around. The Big Lebowski is a farce, but the rest of these movies are pseudo serious, coupled with a weird, little wink, but they are genuine and always interesting.  When you work your way through this list, the serious film fan begins to see that their favorite Wayne movie is in good hands.


As for the acting, I am continually impressed with Jeff Bridges’ acting abilities. On the surface, he appears to sleepwalk his way through roles, until you realize that he’s purposely underplaying the role to allow the material to shine. Bridges’ is not John Wayne, however, and I don’t think he would ever claim to be. I think he would scoff at the idea that he was trying to match Wayne’s acting in this role, or his character, or that he was trying to outdo The Duke. I’m sure that he would tell you that he just played the role the best way he saw fit. Having said that, Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in a more vulnerable manner. He doesn’t cry, or act feminine, he just doesn’t conceal his weaknesses in the manner Wayne did with Cogburn’s character.

The Coen brothers 2010 version is truer to Portis’ novel True Grit. It is reported that when Wayne was on the set of the 1969 version, he said: “This is my show, you’re just along for the ride.” This is a subtle hint that the 1969 version became more of a vehicle for John Wayne, as opposed to a rendition of the novel. I don’t know how much rewriting Wayne had a hand in, in the 1969 version, but Wayne did claim that Marguerite Robert’s screenplay was the best he had ever read. The Coen brothers 2010 version focuses more on the Mattie character and less on the Rooster Cogburn character, in the manner the novel did.

La Boeuf is played by the mediocre Matt Damon. Yawn. Damon, like many leading men, usually plays himself in his roles. I know Glen Campbell was an established star (a country singer) by the time he played La Boeuf in the 1969 version, but he didn’t have much of a filmography to that point. I guess being a country singer gave Campbell a little bit of gravitas for playing a cowboy in the ’69 version, because I believed it. I was young.  Damon is just utterly unbelievable to me.

The introduction of the La Boeuf character has Damon sitting on a porch lighting a pipe. It was a silly scene for the Coen brothers to attempt with Damon. He doesn’t look right in the scene. It’s hard to picture this pretty boy as a rough and tough cowboy without picturing a six year-old in a Howdy Doody get up.  Damon was, of course, necessary for box office, and I understand it’s a business, but I think that they should’ve just put Damon in a Polo shirt and a pair of khaki dockers.  It may not have fit the character, but it would’ve been a lot better than seeing him in his cowboy costume.  He did give a couple of cowboy glints at the Sun, and one would think that that would make him appear to be a dashing cowboy, but when he spoke most of us looked at our watch and wondered how much more screen time he would be allowed.

Damon wasn’t such a distraction, this time out, that he ruined Courtney Loved a good movie.  I enjoyed the little girl playing Mattie Ross, Hailee Steinfeld.  I thought she played her role exceptionally well. The story was subtle, and a little slow in parts, but isn’t every western? Isn’t every Coen brothers movie? Aren’t some of the best movies ever made?  I wouldn’t put this movie in that category, but it was definitely worth the money that we’re now required to spend to watch a movie in a theater.