In the twenty years since its 1998 release, Joel and Ethan Coen’s neo-noir buddy comedy The Big Lebowski has emerged as a cult sensation. A yearly festival is devoted to the film and its slacker-hero “the Dude,” where legions of fans gather to share in their love of all things Lebowski. Interested readers have mountains of material to peruse, with something for everyone: The Tao of the Dude for philosophers; The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies for the scholarly minded; Collected Recipes of the Dude for cooks and mixologists. The tangled and meandering plot (inspired by Raymond Chandler’s notoriously confusing The Big Sleep) features a kidnapping scheme, a missing ransom, elusive rewards, and MacGuffins upon MacGuffins. One can watch the film numerous times without fully grasping how the various plot threads tie together — if they do at all.
The story is populated by a motley cast of characters: an unemployed aging hippie and his bowling buddies, an explosive Vietnam veteran and a pathologically clueless third wheel; a seemingly rich old curmudgeon in a wheelchair, his anally retentive assistant, and his free-spirited young wife; a trio of German nihilists and their attack marmot; a radical feminist who makes “strongly vaginal” paintings; a mysterious, absent-minded cowboy; and a convicted pedophile in a purple polyester jump suit whose relationship with his bowling ball alone could have earned the film’s “R” rating. The Dude encounters these and many others as unexpected visitors to his apartment, in mansions and suburban living rooms, in sheriff’s and doctor’s offices, in mortuaries and auto salvage yards, at hedonistic luaus, and in the bowling alley where he and his friends seem to spend nearly all of their free time. Each site has a distinctive look and feel, and also a distinctive sound. 30+ musical selections animate the Lebowski world, a hodge-podge of relatively unfamiliar and, more often than not, really good music that supports the film’s wild variety of characters and settings. Music permeates the film as though emanating from some bizarre hipster juke box, featuring genres such as classic rock, new age, German technopop, outsider classical, Georgian polyphony, Latin-inflected instrumental lounge music, and 1970s Italian film scoring.
The soundtrack provides only part of the film’s audio, of course, often serving as backdrop to the imminently and endlessly repeatable dialogue that pervades the film, virtually all of it meticulously crafted by the Coens in their original screenplay. The film itself primes the viewer to quote from it: numerous turns of phrase are passed from character to character, encouraging viewers to do the same. At the center of this chatter is the Dude, reflecting the language of those around him, effortlessly (and often accidentally) generating aphorisms and dispelling wisdom. For Lebowski fans, the screenplay is a sacred text, with adages such as “the Dude abides” and “that, and a pair of testicles” as its mantras; each viewing is an opportunity to rediscover a one-liner or to notice a comic aside for the first time.
In sum, The Big Lebowski’s world is eclectic, diffuse, and supersaturated. Its plot, its soundtrack, its cast of characters and their conversations: these elements are not centered and uniform but diverse and divergent. As Lebowski fans might put it, there is no rug that ties the room together. How, then, might viewers orient themselves within the film? This visualization provides a means of exploring this question, for those who are devoted fans, casually acquainted with the film, or simply interested in visual representations of temporal forms. It maps the film’s music, dialogue, characters, and settings and shows how its plot structure is articulated through these elements. The aim is not to “reveal” a single coherent structure beneath the film’s chaotic surface, but rather to suggest multiple ways to find one’s bearings, and to allow users to discover their own ways of navigating and making sense of this richly textured film.
Layers of film structure
To characterize the structure of a film like The Big Lebowski, one rule reigns supreme: any assumption of linearity must be banished at the door. As a nod to that rule, this visualization takes the meandering, tangled nature of the film’s narrative literally — trading a conventional, linear timeline for a serpentine intersection of people and places that is tenuously held together by one foundational dimension of the film: time.
Time is the backbone of this visualization, the temporal extent over which Lebowski takes place. Here, literal time is represented continuously along the visualization’s winding path, measured by the duration of the film (in seconds) from start to finish. But where the visualization encodes literal time, it also encodes its perceptual correlate, the felt time of the film’s action. This winding timeline reminds the viewer that though the film starts and ends in absolute viewing time, the temporality of what happens between those points is relative and hardly linear.
With time as the backbone, the film can then be partitioned into additional layers. Events in a film are conventially broken up into distinctive scenes, delineated by time and location. In this case, the visualization divides The Big Lebowski into 46 scenes, each of which is located precisely on the film’s overall timeline, along with the initial studio info and closing credits. These scene breaks and their numbers are indicated at left; hover over a scene number label to see a screenshot from that scene.
Within these scenes, characters enter and exit, making appearances in various locations. Though the cast of characters in Lebowski is fairly large, this visualization reduces that cast to a core selection of main characters: the Dude, Walter, Donny, The Stranger, Mr. Lebowski, Brandt, Maude, and the Nihilists. Each of these characters is represented by a distinct color, and the presence of lines across spans of the timeline indicates their presence in a given scene. In addition to being represented across time, these characters are also located in space, here situated in five main categories of setting (locations in the film) in which the majority of the action takes place: the Dude’s apartment, Mr. Lebowski’s estate, the bowling alley, the bowling alley parking lot, and finally a general category representing all other locations. These categories were chosen to capture the primary spaces in which character development occurs; here, they are represented as tracks along the length of the timeline, positioning character appearances within those settings in relation to the film’s overall running time.
Another essential part of the film’s structure is dialogue. In this visualization, dialogue is represented as hash-filled wedges along the winding timeline: where there is a striped wedge, dialogue is occurring, and where there is no wedge, there is no dialogue.
This dialogue intersects in important ways with the film’s musical soundtrack, which can weave in and out of the layers that come before it. In this visualization, the presence of music is represented as colored wedges, precisely timed in the film: where there is a wedge, there is music. Where musical genre is associated strongly with a particular character, especially when it accompanies the character’s appearances in specific scenes, color is used to represent the association. For instance, country music is colored gold or yellow to indicate its association with The Stranger while also eliciting sentiments of dusty western films. The archetypal hero of such films is starkly juxtaposed at the beginning of Lebowski with the Dude (complementarily colored), who loves rock music and seems to be trapped in the 1970s. Likewise, classical music is represented as a sophisticated reddish-orange in association with Mr. Lebowski while avant-garde and jazz music is colored green when in reference to Maude. Collectively, these color choices construct a pastiche that reminds the viewer that character interactions are unusual, unexpected, and incongruent.
In The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen stretch these overlapping layers in unconventional ways, yielding a rich topography of audio, narrative, space, and time. Hover over each of these layers to see more about the characters, dialogue, and music that make up the scenes that comprise the film. Continue reading for more explanation of the film’s structure and how that structure is represented here, or click here to explore the visualization on your own.
Plot structure
Fiction films can be typically understood in terms of a three-act structure, where the first act sets up the story and characters, the second comprises the main action, and the third features the climax and dramatic resolution. This tripartite template offers a useful starting point for understanding The Big Lebowski and its nebulous plot. The visualization outlines a roughly proportional three-part structure sharing some (but not all) functions of classical three-act structure:
Part 1 (Scenes 1–15)
Part 1 establishes the primary characters and launches the main story line. Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude,” has been mistaken for another Jeffrey Lebowski, an apparently wealthy old invalid who owes money to someone named Jackie Treehorn; the story begins with Treehorn’s thugs soiling the Dude’s rug. The Dude and his bowling mates, Walter and Donny, set out to make amends for this offense, and then to profit from it. Along the way, the Dude is introduced, via telephone, to Lebowski’s daughter, Maude, as well as to a group of self-proclaimed German “nihilists.” The latter are involved in the kidnapping of Lebowski’s young “trophy wife,” Bunny, whose ransom the Dude has been entrusted to deliver. At the end of Part 1, this delivery goes horribly wrong.
Part 2 (Scenes 16–35)
From this point on, the “main action” is head-spinningly diffuse. The Dude finds himself caught up in a mystery that he struggles to comprehend but is determined to solve — a stoner-turned-Philip Marlowe confronted with a puzzle more complex than he can possibly get his head around. The plot veers off into several digressions and dead ends that fail to shed light on the central mystery. The Dude is properly introduced to Maude at her studio; he meets the Nihilists (and their marmot) face-to-face for the first time; and he encounters a strangely familiar Stranger at the bowling alley bar. Increasingly bizarre tangents follow, including a curious doctor’s appointment prompted by Maude, a false lead involving a young truant named Larry, and a forced visit to porn magnate Jackie Treehorn’s Dionysian playground.
Part 3 (Scenes 36–46)
The Dude, after being seduced by Maude as part of an impregnation scheme, has an epiphany, which he explains to Walter while driving to Lebowski’s mansion: they’ve been scammed. His hard-won understanding of the “case,” as he’s come to think of it, initiates a two-pronged anti-climax: first, a misguided confrontation with the elder Lebowski; and second, a parking-lot face-off with the Nihilists. The story ends at the bowling alley with a second appearance by The Stranger, and the Dude more or less back where he started, continuing to live his lazy life of leisure.
Cyclical structure
At the end of The Big Lebowski, there is a strong sense that the story’s bizarre circumstances have not changed the Dude or his life considerably; he simply continues to be as he’s always been. True, he’s “cracked the case,” but this knowledge has proven essentially useless: he hasn’t saved anyone (Bunny was never kidnapped to begin with), and he hasn’t made any money (nor has anyone else received the payoffs or reimbursements they were seeking). The case has taken a toll in many ways — Donny died, the Dude lost his car and his rug — but any lasting impact seems to have been minor. Balance is restored, and once again the Dude has little more to worry about than the freshness of the half-and-half at Ralph’s; most of the plot’s various threads, like tassels on a rug, are left loose. The Dude, per his wisest and most famous aphorism, simply continues to “abide” — or, as The Stranger puts it, “the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself.”
“Abiding” is a primary theme of the film and one that has resonated strongly with many viewers. It is expressed not merely through story and dialogue, but also through the film’s cyclical plot structure. At the simplest level, the plot is structured around The Stranger, whose recurring monologues and conversations with the Dude serve as prologue, intermission, and epilogue. At a deeper level, the plot is organized around the segments that comprise each of its three parts, each segment about 10-15 minutes long:
Part 1 >
Segment 1 >
Segment 2 >
Segment 3 >
Segment 4 >
Scene 1
Scenes 2–6
Scenes 7–9
Scenes 10–15
Part 2 >
Segment 5 >
Segment 6 >
Segment 7 >
Segment 8 >
Scenes 16–19
Scenes 20–22
Scenes 23–28
Scenes 29–35
Part 3 >
Segment 9 >
Segment 10 >
Scenes 36–43
Scenes 44–46
These segments are best understood in terms of the movement of characters through the film’s wide array of locations. Most of the segments begin in the Dude’s apartment, a place of equilibrium that in each case is disrupted by the arrival of uninvited visitors (Jackie Treehorn’s thugs, Maude, the Nihilists) or phone calls beckoning the Dude toward ever-stranger situations; these disruptions launch successive phases of the plot. After he’s pulled away from his abode, the standard pattern is for the Dude to visit the Lebowski estate and then, at the conclusion of each segment, to meet with his friends at the bowling alley to discuss what has transpired and deliberate plans of action; these sessions often begin indoors and then continue in the parking lot. This pattern is highlighted in the visualization at left.
This basic pattern is established in the three segments of Part 1 that follow the brief prologue (Segments 2–4, Scenes 2–15). In the more digressive Part 2, the pattern breaks down. Segment 5 (Scenes 16–19) begins in the Dude’s apartment, and after a detour to Maude’s studio, he meets with Mr. Lebowski in a limo rather than at Lebowski’s mansion; the Dude discusses this meeting with Walter at a coffee shop rather than at the bowling alley. Segment 6 truncates the basic formula, omitting a visit with Mr. Lebowski as the story begins to focus on secondary characters. The most digressive portions of the film, Segments 7–8 (Scenes 23–35), abandon the formula entirely, aside from a single scene in the Dude’s apartment; these segments are centered around encounters with Larry and Jackie Treehorn, respectively. Part 3 (Scenes 36–46) restores the formula, setting up the film’s epilogue. This concluding scene, like the prologue, features a monologue by The Stranger, now delivered from on-screen. Where the prologue had ended with the Dude approaching his apartment, in the epilogue, he exits the film by heading off to bowl. And thus the Dude's daily journey from his home to his home-away-from-home not only provides the rhythm of the film’s plot segments but frames the plot itself. All paths lead to the bowling alley, as indicated by Walter near the ends of Parts 1 and 3, where he provides another of the film’s central mantras: “Fuck it Dude, let's go bowling.”
Layers of Film Structure: A Closer Look
The following sections take a deeper dive into several more specific dimensions of the film’s structure. Drag and move the visualization to explore along with the text.
The Big Lebowski’s soundtrack, popular in its own right, has become something of an aural icon of the film. Various characters are intimately associated with it, as they are by their clothing, habitats, and ways of speaking. This film’s wide-ranging pop compilation score was curated by T. Bone Burnett in his first collaboration with the Coens and their composer, Carter Burwell — a prelude to Burnett’s more famous soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? two years later. Burnett’s soundtrack, fleshed out with some original music by Burwell, both replicates and supports the disparate and tenuously connected episodes of Lebowski’s plot. It affirms the film’s chaotic narrative structure while providing an additional means of anchoring oneself within it.
Lebowski’s soundtrack is a critical means by which we come to understand the characters and their relation to one another. Most important is the way in which the songs help to characterize the film’s protagonist. As Burwell has explained:
They knew they would have to use a lot of recognizable songs to capture that feeling of the Dude, this guy who’s kind of trapped in the seventies, [. . .] living in his own time and space, and that time and space is certainly not the early nineties, which is when the action takes place.
Thus the soundtrack mostly eschews songs from the nineties (with a few exceptions), instead favoring older music, primarily from the 1950s–1970s. Stylistically, the soundtrack is extremely heterogeneous, featuring a wild diversity of genres. Several broad categories are distinguished in the visualization, many associated primarily with a particular character. Other, less prominent genres are not designated. Musical genre reinforces the film’s structure in various ways. Country music, for instance, frames the film along with monologues by The Stranger. The Dude’s musical world is established in Segment 2, and then contrasted with that of Mr. Lebowski in Segment 3 and again in Segment 4, where rock and classical are juxtaposed; this musical dichotomy characterizes Segment 7 as well, despite the absence of the elder Lebowski at this stage of the plot. The Dude’s being forced to listen to the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” in the last scene of Part 2 is the nadir of this section of the plot, the worst of the Dude’s many humiliations. And indeed, although he regains his spiritual equilibrium by the end of the film, the soundtrack never quite recovers: seventies rock is never heard in Part 3.
Film music can emanate from within the story world, where it is known as “source” or “diegetic” music, or from outside of it, known as “nondiegetic” music or simply as scoring. In Lebowski, as in so many of the Coens’ films, music moves effortlessly between these realms and often occupies an ambiguous space in relation to the story. The most typical scenario is when a musical selection shifts from nondiegetic to diegetic: that is, when it begins life outside of the story, but later seems to emerge from a source within the story. Such a change is registered through changes in sound quality (the music begins to sound tinny or “piped-in”), sometimes paired with visual cues (the Dude’s Walkman). The Coens outlined one such instance in their original screenplay, where they had already identified some of the soundtrack’s most prominent songs (including “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Just Dropped In”). Here they described the transition from the opening titles into the first scene in the bowling alley, to be accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me”:
The music turns into boomy source music, coming from a distant jukebox, as the credits end over a clattering strike.
Burwell has explained the motivation for using source music in the film and setting it up nondiegetically:
The soundtrack of this pseudo-detective-mystery appears to be entirely “source” music, such as the pop songs Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski listens to on his Walkman. [. . .] In the case of “Dick On A Case”, The Dude sees himself as a private dick and the music is jazz. As The Dude follows Jon Polito, an actual detective, into his car the music shifts from score to source music emanating from his car radio.
In many cases, the simple diegetic/nondiegetic binary is not sufficient to capture the music’s function. When the Dude, Walter, and Donny are driving home after a visit to In-N-Out Burger (Scene 28), for example, they listen to Santana’s “Oye como va” on the radio. This music continues, without interruption, in the following scene in the Dude’s apartment, where it emanates from his stereo—defying real-world logic. The music’s sound quality suggests that it is diegetic: it sounds like it is coming from the car radio and then the Dude’s stereo. But its treatment is nondiegetic: it creates a layer of continuity between the scenes, à la musical scoring. We might say that the music is fundamentally diegetic, but that it takes on a nondiegetic function. For the sake of clarity, the visualization glosses over such interesting ambiguities, simply using color shading to show where the music is fundamentally nondiegetic and where it is fundamentally diegetic: a lighter shade indicates nondiegetic, a darker shade diegetic.
The Big Lebowski is a film driven by dialogue. Most of the characters talk, and talk a lot; Donny is the exception that proves the rule, his befuddled silences a comical foil to everyone else’s verbosity. Countless lines have implanted themselves into the ears of fans. With 180+ of the most popular catalogued on, hardly a word in the film seems to have been deemed unworthy of quotation. In quoting from Lebowski, fans are following the lead of the Coens themselves, who love to repeat dialogue as a means of emphasis, to make connections between characters and situations, or simply to milk a joke. As filmmakers, they are far from alone in this practice: repeated dialogue characterizes many postclassical films with memorable banter, what scholar Michel Chion has called “parroting.” What makes Lebowski’s repetitions distinctive, however, is how frequently they are delayed within the film. On numerous occasions, one character seems to borrow the words of another, speaking them at a different time and place and in a radically different context. In some cases, these borrowings are “impossible,” as scholar Jeff Jaeckle has referred to them: words spoken by one character who was not present when the same words were spoken by another, and who in some cases has no connection to that character whatsoever. The effect of such delayed and impossible repetitions is that language takes on a life of its own as a meta-text, tying together the jumbled and disparate events from which the story is assembled. Most often, it is the Dude who adapts others’ words as though trying on personas through language, typically in improvisatory fashion and perhaps unconsciously. In this way he bears traces of all those he encounters; and yet his character and identity remain essentially unchanged.
Dialogue repetitions have many functions in the film. They draw comical contrasts between characters, as when the Dude borrows Maude’s condescending reference to the “parlance of our times” (which both characters fail to conform to, albeit for very different reasons). They help to establish themes, such as the various uses of the outdated slang “Johnson” (or “Chonson,” as spoken by the Nihilists), which contribute to the film’s commentary on the contemporary male and his threatened sense of masculinity. This theme is centered around the Dude’s own masculinity crisis, exemplified by the castration nightmare in which he is chased by a giant pair of scissors. The Dude tries on alternative masculine personas through language, such as when he attempts to borrow The Stranger’s adage “sometimes you eat the bar...,” or when he paraphrases George Bush’s assertion that “this aggression will not stand,” overheard from the TV in Ralph’s. And finally, the repetition of dialogue plays a structural role, such as Walter’s refrain “fuck it, let's go bowling,” an apt slogan for the film. The visualization shows these and many other dialogue repetitions. Every gold star symbol around the curve of the timeline indicates an instance of repeated dialogue, positioned precisely at the time at which it is spoken. Hover over these markers to see examples of the parroting that occurs among characters throughout the film.
Characters and locations
Characters in The Big Lebowski are defined by, and inseparably linked to, the spaces they inhabit: their homes, their places of leisure, their work spaces, their modes of transportation. The Dude’s love of bowling, for example, is an essential element of his character that bonds him to his otherwise unlikely comrades, Walter and Donny; their bowling alley of choice is one fulcrum of the story. The other is the Dude’s shabby bachelor pad, adorned with a few emblematic trappings of the hippie lifestyle, such as the tiki bar where he mixes his White Russians, and the Persian rug whose defiling kicks the story into action. The visualization tracks several of the film’s primary characters, showing when, and in which locations, they are present in the film. This tracking is far from straightforward, as there are various degrees to which a character might be considered “present” at any given moment. For this visualization, a character is considered present if he/she is seen, heard, or understood to be located off-camera, within range of the camera’s “eye.” The perceived movement of characters in and out of the film, and their literal movement within its locations, are primary means by which we might anchor ourselves in the plot, as explained in the segmentation outlined above.
Explore on your own
After watching The Big Lebowski, one may be left with the impression that this bizarre and seemingly impossible coalescence of characters in space and time exists only under the gaze of the viewer, appearing briefly over the duration of the film before vanishing instantly in the closing credits. And yet, as this analysis has shown, there are layers of structure to the film — delineated by music, characters, locations, dialogue, and so much more not captured here — with which we can find our bearings. Explore these many structures on your own — and perhaps you will find an unexpected connection you have not noticed before.