On the 20th anniversary of The Big Lebowski’s 1998 release, the Washington Post hunted down critics who had initially panned the cult film classic and asked them for a reassessment. At least some of them admitted they hadn’t gotten the Coen Brothers’ absurdist comedy the first time around. It’s not hard to understand why. Lebowski doesn’t fit neatly into any film genre; indeed, it is a crazy quilt of just about every film genre you can think of.
A cult film fan who identifies himself as “The Mighty Heptagon” on Reddit has a theory that the major characters in Lebowski are all actors who know they are in a movie, but each believes he is in a different genre and plays his or her part accordingly. For example, The Dude, the aging hippie played by Jeff Bridges, thinks he is in a stoner film; John Goodman’s Walter, the Vietnam vet with the hair-trigger temper, thinks he is in a post-Vietnam movie; Sam Elliot, the cowboy narrator, believes he is acting in a Western. And so forth. The one character who doesn’t realize he is an actor in a film is the clueless Donny, played by Steve Buscemi, whose cluelessness largely derives from the fact he doesn’t realize he’s in a movie.
The Big Lebowski’s madcap improvisational feel may be more of a metaphor for real life than we care to admit. Shakespeare hinted at this long ago in As You Like It, suggesting that all the world’s a stage. To which Oscar Wilde added, “The world is a stage, and the play is badly cast.” Nobody auditions for any part; we are born into them. And, of course, we make up our own lines as we go along, which may account for the madcap improvisational feel. Like Lebowski, we each believe we are playing our roles in a favorite genre. And whether it’s tragedy, comedy or farce, we are all vying for top billing.
Shakespeare revisited the stage metaphor in Macbeth, with his title character concluding that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Certainly we may be forgiven for concluding on the basis of simple observation that there is no larger narrative framework tying together all the loose ends. But if we pay careful attention, we may catch glimpses from time to time of something unfolding that is not merely random circumstance.
In her memoir, Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf referred to mere random circumstance as “the cotton wool of daily life.” Woolf wrote, “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.” As an artist herself, Woolf recognized a work of art when she saw one. Yet she rejected the idea that there must be some great artist at work: “…there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” If there is no Shakespeare, no Beethoven, and no God, then the story must somehow be telling itself.
How can this be? How can you give a bunch of monkeys a bunch of typewriters and expect them to produce the works of Shakespeare? Granted, this example may seem far-fetched. Yet there are plenty of real-world examples. In chaos theory, a branch of higher mathematics, order can emerge spontaneously from chaotic conditions under the right circumstances. Biologists point to “emergent behavior” in certain species that is not evident in individuals but that emerges spontaneously in groups, whether it is the complex social organization of honeybees and ants, the herding behavior of some domestic animals or the flocking of birds.
Perhaps most relevant to this discussion is the dynamics of improv itself, which was developed by actors in the Second City troupe in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. In improv, there is no need of a director or a scriptwriter. You start with a setting and a few working principles, the most important of which is “yes and” – yes, you fully accept the situation handed off to you by the other actors, then you build on it, passing it back to them. Say you are in a bowling alley: an aging hippy, a hot-tempered Vietnam vet and a cowboy, plus a totally clueless character who seems to have wandered in off the street. Throw in a pedophile bowling champ, a billionaire, an heiress, a porn star and a gang of nihilists, all of whom think they are starring in a different genre. And somehow out of this crazy mish-mash, a coherent story emerges.
“Remember, you are just an extra in everyone else's play,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked. I don’t know the circumstances under which he said it. But his comment tells me everything I need to know about why FDR was a political genius. He understood that even though he was President of the United States, the story wasn’t all about him. How could it be with everybody vying for top billing and making up their own lines as they went along?
And just where is God in all this? If Virginia Woolf has anything to say about it, God is certainly and emphatically nowhere. But if he is anywhere, he is in the something that emerges from seeming disarray: in the pattern hidden in the cotton wool of daily life, in the order that spontaneously emerges from chaos, in the emergent behavior of certain species -- including our own, by the way. It is the story line that somehow coalesces out of the most disparate elements imaginable as we improvise our way through life. God is not exactly the director nor the scriptwriter of this madcap enterprise. Think of God as a character who plays all the parts.