Mark Peters, a language columnist for Good and Visual Thesaurus, as well as the blogger behind The Pancake Proverbs, The Rosa Parks of Blogs, and Wordlustitude is our guest blogger this week. In this post, he looks at language and the love of The Big Lebowski.
I don’t do cults.
I never joined a doomsday cult, even for the free tote bag. I tried starting my own cult, based on voodoo and pancakes, but the ranks are thin. Despite my admiration for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, I never drank enough Tribble-ade to qualify for Trekkie status. I’m just a non-cult-y guy.
But if there’s one cult that could secure my lifetime membership, immortal soul, and adorable firstborn, it would be the following dedicated to The Big Lebowski—the 1998 Coen brothers film, starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, that I seem able to watch on any given day, at any particular time, no matter how many previous viewings have taken place that week. The overall weapons-grade awesomeness of this movie has spawned Lebowski Fests, academic books, and plenty of what-have-you, but I love The Big Lebowski mainly because of the language, which is juicy, quotable, and frequently used as a dog whistle to identify other fans.
My mind isn’t limber enough to summarize this brain-humper of a movie, except to say it is, as J.M. Tyree and Ben Walters write in their Film Classics book, “a struggle between the harmless idiots and the harmful idiots of this world”. The harmless folks are led by Jeffrey Lebowski (much better known as “the Dude”) and Walter Sobchak—two bowling enthusiasts and sixties holdovers from opposite ends of the spectrum. The harmful group includes Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski, a quartet of nihilists, and some non-house-trained, non-rug-respecting goons. No one achieves much of anything, which makes the word Achiever—the Lebowski-lover’s equivalent of Trekkie, Deadhead, or Twihard—all the more amusing.
“Achiever” is mega-prominent in the movie, usually as a contrast to the Dude’s non-achieving ways, as the wall of the older Lebowski has pictures and plaques celebrating The Little Lebowski Urban Achievers and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Business Achiever Award. In a memorable image, the Dude gapes into a mirror with the Time logo and “Man of the Year” emblazoned on top, plus the words, “Are you a Lebowski achiever?” on the side. Later, the plaque-collecting Lebowski speaks of his wife’s kidnappers as “Men who are unable to achieve on a level field of play” and accuses the Dude of failing “…to achieve, even in the modest task that was your charge…” With all this talk of achievement, it’s no wonder the Achievers adopted the name.
Though the words of just about any cult fave will get parroted—TV and movies spread terms like KFC-phobia in a chicken coop—Achievers who ape Lebowski lingo are more in tune with their source material than most. In the film, phrases such as “In the parlance of our times,” “Nothing is fucked,” and “It really tied the room together” (a reference to the Dude’s rug) flit from one character to another. Quotation is in the movie’s DNA. In a New York Times article by David Edelstein, Jeff Dowd—who partially inspired the character of the Dude—says, “It’s remarkable how many people from different walks of life see this movie again and again. Not just potheads. There was a Wall Street guy I met who’d drop a ‘Lebowski’ line into job interviews and if the person didn’t pick up on it he wouldn’t be hired.” That kind of dog-whistle quotation is a staple of Achievers, who love to drop lines such as:
“Nobody fucks with the Jesus.”
“This aggression will not stand, man.”
“Sometimes there’s a man…”
“You mean, coitus?”
“Shut the fuck up, Donnie!”
“You human paraquat!”
“Am I wrong?”
The sound or sight of any of these one-liners are like mother’s milk—make that mother’s White Russian, the drink of the Dude—to an Achiever, but there is one quotation that has achieved the status of a snowclone: “This is not Nam. This is bowling. There are rules,” as said by Walter during a dispute over bowling opponent Smokey crossing the line (literally) during play.
I can’t think of a Lebowski-ism more fun or useful than this one. I imagine many bowling enthusiasts use the line verbatim—minus the handgun-brandishing, one would hope. As the following examples show, it’s just as useful as “cuckoo for X puffs” and “post-traumatic X syndrome”—two other expressions that would easily apply to the gun-happy Walter.
“This is not ‘Nam. This is Twitter. There are rules.”
(Feb. 1, 2010, Maria, Twitter,)
“I carry cards that say ‘This is not ‘Nam. This is parking. There are rules.’”
(Jan. 31, 2010, PassiveAggressiveNotes.com)
“Pedestrians of downtown #Indianapolis, this is not ‘Nam. This is walking across the busy street. There are rules. #fb”
(Jan. 22, 2010, Dan Moore, Twitter)
“Rachel, this is not ‘Nam; this is a martini. There are rules. @maddow, @kateregan.”
(Dec. 19, 2009, Michael Charles Reed, Twitter)
“Dave, this is not ‘Nam, this is baseball blogging. There are rules.”
(Feb. 12, 2009, River Avenue Blues)
“Give yourselves a hand, Potato Nation. You really got after this one, and a select few of you even remembered to tell us whether you are geographically eligible to win this contest. Props to 831 Son for berating those of you who forgot. This is not ‘Nam. This is a caption contest. There are rules.”
(July 9, 2009, Cage Potato)
“But not all words are created equal, a fact more easily forgotten when something is printed and placed in fancy bins for distribution. This is not ‘Nam. This is journalism. There are rules, guidelines that must be followed on all ends.”
(Oct. 24, 2008, Pipe Dream)
“Look, this is not ‘nam. This is a scientific theory, and there are rules. So while teams might switch their shoe or sock color, or might ditch one of their varieties of pants, not all of these count as a viable, fortune-affecting uniform change. (I also don’t really have time to track all of these; honestly, you wouldn’t believe how many times the Saints have changed their pants stripes.)”
(Oct. 27, 2005, The Ex-‘Burgher)
Here’s another alteration that takes a few more liberties: “Smokey, this be not the foul jungles of the darkest East Orient. This be ninepins. We are bound by laws.”
That’s the translation of the line from web sensation The Two Gentleman of Lebowski, Adam Bertocci’s answer to the question “What if William Shakespeare wrote The Big Lebowski?” A connection between the Bard and the Dude is fitting. As Tyree and Walters wrote, “Lebowski is a bit like a Shakespeare comedy, if only in the light-hearted sense that it celebrates life and love, ultimately endorsing marriage and ending with nuptials or sexual reproduction: in the end, Walter and the Dude embrace and go bowling, restoring equilibrium to their strange bachelor relationship.”
Beyond that, the Dude and the Bard both love to lounge luxuriously in a linguistic la-la land. By turning “Nice marmot” into “O excellent marmot!”—and linking two sources that word-lovers flock to like pigeons on a hot dog bun—Bertocci has proven himself a hell of an Achiever.
Am I wrong?