In 1998, Clinton was impeached for his liaison with Lewinsky, Maine repealed their gay rights law, and the FDA approved Viagra; being your own man was becoming complicated stuff. Joel and Ethan Coen, hot off of their heavily lauded, "Fargo" released "The Big Lebowski," an oddball movie about mistaken identity and a bathrobe wearing slacker known as "The Dude." The film wasn't a big hit at the time but has endured as a cult classic.
The Dude was based on a few people the Coen brothers had encountered, but none more than Jeff Dowd, a writer/producer, producer's representative and authority on film marketing, distribution and exhibition. Jeff is a mumbler and rambler who uses phrases like, "you know" too often for me to include them all here. We started the interview with him playing with a newly acquired keychain. Push a button and Jeff Bridges delivers quotes from "The Big Lebowski," like, "At least I'm housebroken." Then, Dowd immediately took charge and asked:
JD:Have you been watching Treme? I think that is almost the best piece of cinema of any kind anywhere right now because they've been using great directors like Agnieszka Holland and Jim McKay and stuff like that. It's just remarkable cinema, the way… the characters, with the way they work with the camera and get a sense of place and time. I just love it. I've turned like hundreds of people onto it.
LC: We gotta establish who you are
JD:The Dude is here.
LC:I didn't even know what a dude was until after I saw Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, so I read somewhere that you've had this nickname since kindergarten. How is that possible?
JD:It isn't, but it has been since 6th grade. I was living in, of all places, Berkeley California and these two brothers, Dave and Danny, they just moved out there. My parents had split up and they started calling me, "Dude" and "The Dude" and it's kind of a California thing, this is early, I'm an old guy, so this was '61, but I can out-rock any 25 year old, so it was 1961 and then my mother remarried and went back to suburban New York, Larchmont, and all my friends there, having no knowledge of this, started calling me "Dude" and "The Dude." And then as I went into the college years and I got involved in the activist, anti-war movement, we had like national groups like (?FPF?) and stuff and you'd go to conventions and all the guys from Cornell and Ithaca called me, "The Dude" and so it spread around and I got this national name and even on my Seattle Seven indictment, it reads, "Jeff 'The Dude' Dowd."
LC:It says "Jeff 'The Dude?'"
JD:Yeah, and Joel and Ethan [Coen] are voracious readers somehow so Ethan Coen read somewhere about that, because they read something, when we were working on "Blood Simple," their first film, and so they called me up one day and go, "Dude, Duder, Duderino" and they just loved to riff on the name. I think half the reason they did the character was so they'd get to riff on the name.
LC:When I think of the quote, "The Dude abides," I'm reminded of this Emerson quote, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." So, how do you remain yourself, because The Dude does abide.
JD:Well, it was a hell of a challenge today. I was having one of those Jimmy Stewart "It's a Wonderful Life" on the bridge moments. You know, not that I'm suicidal, but everything seemed to hit the fan as it did on so many people these days in so many ways. On the financial front, for sure. You know, I just grew up with a sense of… I think one of the appeals of the Dude, and then I'll back into the question. Because when I'm out everywhere, 'cause I'll meet people, all kinds of people, we're not talking about college types and slacker types alone, we're talking about military guys and Republicans from San Diego and stuff like that. The movie is so well liked across all kinds of lines, because it's a comedy, you know. I think that's good. They say, god, Dude, you're my hero and I go, well what do you mean? And the guy's like a slacker type guy and they go, well, you're your own man.
In a world where so many people have to put on a persona at work, you get dressed in your suit and tie, let's say, and you go to work, and I'm not talking about N'awlins, people tend to be their own people, you know, that's why I like New Orleans so much and all that stuff. But you know, you imagine someone in any city going into an office building or like that famous shot in "The Apartment" with Jack Lemmon where you first see all the desks, and you put on a false persona, you know? That's not who you really are, that's your corporate persona. And it may be the same in school or it may be the same – and it's part of who you are, but it might not be really that close to your soul. It's a job, it's a gig.
And so one of the things that I think appeals to people is there's another side of them that's not that mask and the Dude represents someone who's willing to be his own person and not have to play the game. You know, in a way, its even false to yourself. And especially, now this isn't the "Dude," but this is me here, because the Bridges-Lebowski-Dude doesn't know what day it is, and work, well, you know, I'm unemployed right now. People aren't able to be themselves, and this is one of the great contradictions in America right now.
I don't mean to overgeneralize, but they're not able to use their mind and their training and their education. I mean, all kinds of people at GM knew how to make better cars, and different cars, and you have the movie, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" They had the electric car when? It was like 1999. So, we have the innovative expertise in the country to do things, but you're not allowed to, as demonstrated by say, Google and Apple and all kinds of high tech companies. And so The Dude thing, even though he's not an active role model, so to speak, he's not some great innovative adventurer or some guy activist or male Mother Theresa or something like that, or Billy Nungesser or something like that, but at least he's his own man, okay…
But the bottom of that, I was giving a seminar with this guy Phil Cousineau http://philcousineau.net/ who's probably the leading mythologer in the world right now. He's the heir to Joseph Campbell, you know, "Hero with a Thousand Faces" and all that kinda stuff and asked Phil to carry the torch, so to speak, and Phil's done a book on Joe and and done a movie as well and he's written like 23 books. So I go to this seminar at, of all places, the Esalen Insitute, have you ever been there?
LC:No, I haven't.
JD:Well, you know, it's a very spiritual place but it also features the hot tubs where everybody goes nude. But, we're doing this thing on myth, magic and movies, okay?… So, I turn to Phil and say, "What's the mythological significance of The Dude? He says, "Oh, that's easy. The Dude is the holy fool, full of heart." It goes back to St. Francis of Assisi, but especially to the King's jester. The King's jester was the one guy who was allowed to tell the truth, but he did it with silly and ridiculous comedy… And that tradition carries on with all kinds of comics today, for example, where it's Chris Rock and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are holy fools, right? Colbert, his whole thing is an act, obviously, where he portrays himself as kind of a right winger, but he's a holy fool and so's Stewart and they do all kinds of funny things. But it also pertains to Holden Caulfield and um… come on, uh "Catcher in the Rye."
LC:"Catcher in the Rye." Right, for 2 points.
JD:I was just a little slow on that last buzzer. I have no ability to IMDB or Google really quick, a lifeline. So, anyway, I have been like that and I think that was part of the appeal to Joel and Ethan, too. On the one hand, they saw The Dude as a guy in over his head, like a Raymond Chandler, noir… Who was it that wrote those, um…?
LC:I have no idea.
JD:Ah, memory's fading for young Laura. They kept this kind of L.A. crime drama and kinda put a slacker in over his head and used what they thought I might have been like in 1976. I've slowly drifted off target here. Do you remember what I was talking about at all?
LC:We were talking about The Dude abiding.
JD:The holy fool thing, the one side of it is that and we'll take a buddy movie with John Goodman, with Walter being the guy in any movie who'll get the other guy in trouble. Tony Curtis in "Some Like it Hot," Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon," Butch in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," etc., etc. You know, more modern would be "Pineapple Express" or "The Hangover," you know? There's all those guys that are getting' the other guy in trouble, or women. But, the other side of it, which was me as well, was the holy fool, the guy that does tell it like it is and is not afraid to do it, but is also silly, as you know, having met me. I'm not your average bear, you know?
LC:Did you know that one of the symbols of this city is jesters hats in our colors, purple, gold and green?
JD:Yes, of course. I didn't think of it until you reminded me, but yes. Which means we've had a little harmonic convergence here. This is why a character like me would be considered conservative in New Orleans. And has been on certain nights.
Stay tuned for more Dude tales and join me for the midnight screening of "The Big Lebowski" at the Prytania Theatre. http://theprytania.com/
July 16 & 17