"The man for his time" The Big Lebowski as carnivalesque social critique

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Date: Sept. 2007
From: Communication Studies(Vol. 58, Issue 3)
Publisher: Central States Communication Association
Document Type: Report
Length: 7,583 words
Lexile Measure: 1480L

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When The Big Lebowski was released in 1998, it was paradoxically derided by critics for being both ostentatious and vapid. Nine years later, for at least one critic, it has become the cult film of our times (Palopoli, 2002). This claim is validated by the abundance of "Lebowskifests," conventions where hundreds of fans come together to watch the film, bowl (this being the central motif of the film), and compete in costume and trivia contests (Buchanan, 2004; "Lebowskifest," n.d.; Parks, 2004). The movie has attracted a broad following, from U.S. Marines to Wall Street moguls (Palopoli). Such steadily increasing popularity for a film originally regarded as a cinematic failure is intriguing.

When The Big Lebowski (TBL) entered theaters in the late 1990s, the United States was enjoying a period of economic and social prosperity (Easterbrook, 1999). Consequently, most Americans were not receptive to social critiques that TBL had to offer. However, in the intervening years, the cultural landscape has shifted in several important areas. With a flagging economy, an extended and bloody war with Iraq, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, the United States has increasingly become a place where the mainstream media tends to legitimate only official points of view and political dissent is unpopular. The latter tends to be "swallowed by the big official spin" (Griffen, 2002, p. 279), creating a void in popular critical discourse. With this void begging to be filled by those left voiceless and powerless, The Big Lebowski has become even more relevant today. TBL provides a critique of the dominant culture not only in the content of the film, but through the very cinematic and narrative techniques critics lambasted upon its release, all three of which are carnivalesque in nature. As described by Mikhail Bakhtin (1963/1984; 1965/1984), carnival "is the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous, half-real and half-play-acted form, a new mode of interrelating between individuals, counter-posed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of non-carnival life" (Bakhtin, 1963/1984, p. 123, emphasis in original).

Carnival, then, is used as a vehicle of social critique. While scholars within the fields of linguistics, literary criticism, and communication in general have been intrigued by Bakhtin's work since it was first translated into English in 1984, it is only recently that communication scholars have begun to look closely at Bakhtin's analysis of carnivalesque rhetoric (Harold, 2004; Bruner, 2005). While this work focuses on the efficacy of carnivalesque tactics in generating social and political change, this article speaks to carnival's ability to inspire such agency--encouraging audience members to recognize the constructed and thus changeable nature of society. Understanding the architecture of carnivalesque media forms and the implications they have for communication is also valuable because such critiques are particularly well suited to social environments where the dominant ideology functions to silence dissent.

In this essay, we demonstrate the ways in which TBL employs carnivalesque rhetorical strategies within such a discursively restricted setting in an effort to encourage audiences to see that the social world is not...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A170017807