Car Movies: The Big Lebowski

NOTE: This was written as an ill-fated entry for the Jalopnik “Next Top Car Blogger” contest. I read the rules before they’d updated them to specify a 40-word limit on the lede, and didn’t bother to re-read the rules before submitting. In reality, a 150-word lede is ridiculous anyway, so it’s my own fault either way.

The Big Lebowski was not a success, critically or financially. Pointing that out now, a dozen years later, seems kind of strange. But for a movie that cost $15 million, a final domestic gross of just over $17 million isn’t exactly burning up the turnstiles. It wasn’t until it hit rental and the stoners, the frats, the punks dropping tabs of acid during the Busby Berkeley dance sequences, and the ironic mid-oughts proto-hipsters got their grubby mitts on it that it turned into a cult classic, a cultural touchstone, and finally a financial success. But this is not a sociology or, for that matter, film blog. We’re not here to talk about the cultural significance of John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak vis-à-vis Neo-conservatism, to dissect the movie’s Phillip Marlowe-meets-Cheech & Chong plot, or even to quote dialog ad naseum until we run out our word limit. After all, this is not ‘Nam. There are rules.

We’re here to talk cars. Well, The Big Lebowski and cars. And maybe drugs, I haven’t decided yet. The Big Lebowski, cars, drugs. Also, In-n-Out burgers, and possibly early-90’s porno, and bowling, and what a bowling-themed porno would be named (I’m thinking either “6-9 Split” or, my personal favorite, “16-pound Balls”).

While not a pure car movie in the vein of something along the lines of “Thunder Road,” Lebowski’s plot has its fair share of car connections: Late-80’s Lincoln stretch limos (“I got a beverage, man!”), and Walter’s ill-conceived Corvette demolition (“This is what happens, Larry! This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!” NOTE: I’ve seen the TBS cut).

Then there’s The Dude’s car, a 1973 Gran Torino according to the ever-useful

This is not the trailer queen Gran Torino of the eponymous Eastwood movie-cum-race-baiting-extravaganza (full disclosure: I loved that movie. Then again, I’m not Korean.) This is a Gran Torino that’s been through the wars.

They say that after a while, married couples start to look like each other (which is terrible, terrible news for my wife)(also, me). The Dude is a man (“after all, what makes a man?”) who looks like his car.

He’s got some rust, a few dents in the body, and doesn’t get up to speed as fast as he used to. He’s also a man with unfailing loyalty, or possibly codependency, for the people that surround him. That also mirrors his car, because although the Torino gets shot, crashed (twice), and beat to hell with a crowbar, it never lets The Dude down. Also like The Dude, while it might smoke too much, when it comes time to perform it can put down the rubber. Or no rubber. If you get what I mean. With regards to Maude. Bumping uglies. Coitus.

Okay, you know what? At this point the analogy starts to fall apart.

Anyway, I think the moment in The Big Lebowski that cements it, in my mind, as a movie that “gets” cars is right after The Dude leaves the doctor’s office and is being trailed by a Volkswagen Bug driven by the guy that played the mobster in “The Rocketeer” and also everything else ever.

The Dude is driving without a seatbelt (in pre-“Click it or Ticket” days), “smokin’ a J” (in the parlance of the movie), and drinking a beer while listening to “The Creedence.” He’s singing along with “Lookin’ out My Back Door,” pounding on the headliner in time with the music, and generally living high (literally) off the hog. That moment (sans beer, ganja, and, let’s face it, The Creedence) crystallizes what’s great about the driving experience.

At that moment, The Dude has reached the state of Zen Driving Nirvana. The windows are down. It’s a warm afternoon. You have no place to be, and you’re not driving to anywhere in particular. Your favorite song comes on the radio (or, as the case may be, the 8-track), and you pound the headliner along with the beat, and sing along.

Of course, the scene doesn’t end well for The Dude or for that matter the Gran Torino, largely because the windows weren’t down when he tried to throw the joint out the window. Just more proof, I suppose, that the bums always lose.

In the end, this is only tangentially a car movie. The cars are supporting characters and only rarely the focus of the plot. But that’s kind of the way life is, at least for car guys. The cars can be a focus of our lives, or they can be supporting characters. But we’re always aware of them, always looking for the next scene in our little play that features that supporting cast member. And in the meantime, we, like The Dude, abide.

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