A Dude and A Zen Master

The Dude
Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski

You know The Dude, right? Maybe you know him as His Dudeness or Duder or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. But don’t call him Lebowkski. Maybe you can call him Jeff Bridges.

The Big Lebowski is a 1998 film that didn’t do very well when it was released but has achieved cult status since. It’s a comedy with some film noir elements. It was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Jeff Bridges stars as Jeff Lebowski, known as The Dude. He is an unemployed Los Angeles slacker who loves to bowl.

The film’s conflict occurs when he is a victim of mistaken identity. Some kidnappers mistake him for a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski whose trophy wife has been taken.

Mr. Lebowski signs on The Dude to deliver the ransom to secure her release. This possibly easy-money job falls apart because The Dude’s friend Walter (John Goodman) decides that they can keep the ransom and dupe the kidnappers.

Joel Coen has said that he wanted to do a Raymond Chandler kind of film noir mystery. It reminds me the most of two of Chandler’s novels –  The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep.  It feels like those stories because of its episodic, ridiculously complicated plot, oddball L.A. characters, and ongoing attempts to solve the mystery. The mystery itself might not be the kidnapping plot as much as figuring out why two thugs working for Jackie Treehorn beat up The Dude and urinated on his rug.

An even bigger influence may have been the film versions of those two novels.  I’m thinking that the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum more than the classic Bogie and Bacall film may have been an influence. And The Long Goodbye remake with Elliot Gould which was directed by Robert Altman feels even closer to the contemporary Los Angeles of Lebowski.

ThisBut here is a leap – the film has been embraced by some Zen practitioners. It’s not the first odd film that has been seen to have a higher spiritual meaning. I already wrote about “The Zen of Groundhog Day” and there is a scene in that film where Phil, who is stuck in a time loop of repeating the same Groundhog Day over and over, is in a Lebowski-ish bowling alley. He asks two bowlers drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.” And The Dude might agree. And be quite happy with that loop.

Groundhog Day didn’t come from Zen Buddhist roots. The original idea for the story supposedly was The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom), a book by Friedrich Nietzsche in which the author gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again. Some Buddhists and others embraced the modern-day reincarnation and karma story of  Groundhog Day and Phil’s journey to reach an understanding of what he is meant to do with his life.

The Big Lebowski, 10th Anniversary Limited Edition DVD comes in a bowling ball

At least one Zen Master, Bernie Glassman, saw Zen in The Dude. He is a friend and teacher of Jeff Bridges and now they have written a book together, appropriately titled The Dude and the Zen Master.

Glassman is a well-known Zen teacher. His book Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen is based on workshops he gave as Abbot of the Zen Community of New York. He had been an applied mathematician and aerospace engineer and sometimes works examples of science into his conversation.

In his approach to enlightenment, you will not reach it by doing Zen. But when you are enlightened, then you will be doing Zen.

If that circular reasoning (or path that is an “Infinite Circle”) sounds like a Zen koan, it is intentional. Their new book actually looks for the koans within the film. And, yes, the idea that the film was made by the Coen (Koan?) brothers is mentioned. Glassman is certainly well-versed in these teaching stories. He wrote the foreword to The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koans.

If it wasn’t for Glassman’s other work, you might toss off this book’s approach to the film and Zen as a joke. Certainly, there is some levity in the book. It has chapters with titles like “The Dude is Not In,” and  “Sorry, I Wasn’t Listening,”

So what does it mean in Zen terms to be like the Dude when “The Dude abides?”  We abide, as in “lives”, in a place and a time. We also abide in the sense of “approve.” We abide in the sense of “obey.” But The Dude is “not in” and he does not approve of much of what happens and he certainly does not abide by the rules. The Dude is not here.

The book came out of ten years of conversations and one intense week of recorded conversations for the book. It also certainly has some intention to introduce us to their Zen work in the world. Glassman has Zen Peacemakers. Jeff Bridges has his End Hunger Network.

So, is this really a kind of Buddhism, or is it more of Dudeism? Well, actually, Dudeism, is an online religion devoted largely to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of The Dude that was founded in 2005. It is also known as The Church of the Latter-Day Dude and the organization has ordained over 150,000 “Dudeist Priests” all over the world via its website.

In The Dude and the Zen Master, the dialogue is pretty wide-ranging from Zen and the movies to the importance of simply doing good in a complicated world.

Bridges and Glassman

One thing that The Dude does is that he is there. That is a lesson Bridges learned from his father, another actor.  It is important to show up. In Zen, that matters. Showing up.

Glassman says in the book that “Trillions of years of DNA, the flow of the entire universe all lead up to this moment. So what do you do? You just do.”

In Buddhism, that translates as the difficult part of daily practice.

Glassman, who is the voice of knowledge in the book to Bridges’s experiences, also compares The Dude to Lamed-Vavnik who is one of the men in Jewish mysticism who “are simple and unassuming, and so good that, on account of them, God lets the world go on.”

The Dude is not a trained  Zen Master. He is an intuitive Zen Master. The Dude will always prefer to hug it out than slug it out. “I dig the Dude,” says Bridges in the book. “He is very authentic. He can be angry and upset, but he’s very comfortable in his own skin. And in his inimitable way, he has grace.”

Jeff Bridges brings a lot of his insights from his acting work to the Zen table.  Are we all actors wearing masks? Can we live in the moment of a “scene” without being consumed by the character we are playing?

If you want to throw the Big Questions net even wider than the Coen brothers’ one Lebowski philosophy, there is a book for you that goes into 13 more of their films. The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers by Cathleen Falsani looks at the big subjects of their films. Want to examine the nature of evil? Watch No Country for Old Men. Seeing their films as their own moral universe doesn’t really seem so outrageous.

Being present and abiding seems to mean taking the world for what it is. Suffering comes from desire but it also comes from trying to push the world away or expecting it to be different without your own action.

Maybe we all need to abide.

The Dude and The Stranger (Sam Elliott) at the bowling alley (spoiler alert) at the end of the film.


Walkabout refers to a rite of passage where male Australian Aborigines undergo a journey during adolescence and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months. It’s a vision quest taken to extremes.

My introduction to it was through a fill called  Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg. I saw it the year I started college and it really intrigued me.

It follows the journey of a sister and brother who are abandoned in the Australian outback and their meeting with an Aborigine boy who is on his walkabout. Together they journey innocence into experience in the wild.

The film has a cult status these days, but back in the early 1970s very few people I knew had ever heard of it. Of course, I was not alone in having a crush on the unnamed girl in the film played by Jenny Agutter.

The film was unconventional and had almost none of the “plot” that we expect in a film. Years later, I saw a “director’s cut” but by then I had forgotten the details from my original viewing. (A benefit of the aging brain and memory is that you can re-experience things you loved as if they were new again.) The scenes of frontal nudity and realistic, survival hunting scenes seemed perfect in context, but unusual at the time.

So, that film led me to read the original book and several other non-fiction books about the walkabout experience. I even tried once to teach the book to middle school students, but they just didn’t get it.

I loved the idea that the seeker followed “songlines” that their ancestors took. These songlines (or dreaming tracks) of the Indigenous Australians are an ancient cultural concept and motif perpetuated through oral lore and singing and other storytelling dances and paintings.

The songlines are an intricate series of song cycles that identify landmarks and mechanisms for navigation. They remind me of the songs of whales. I can’t explain how they work any more than I can explain the whale songs or how migrating birds find their way. Though I have read about all of these things, I don’t think I really want to know (at a scientific level) how it works.

Each song has a particular direction or line to follow and walking the wrong way may even be sacrilegious. You don’t go up one side of a sacred hill when that is the side to come down. That would send you in the wrong direction both literally (on a map) and figuratively (in your life).

What is it about being alone in the wilderness that tunes (or, more likely, re-tunes) our awareness of the natural elements and our connection to them, and even to some creational source? Though I and my ancestors are a long way from that natural life, something remains inside us.

Like the vision quest, the walkabout is an initiation into the teachings and mysteries of the self and the universe. The seeker both finds truths and has truth revealed.

While the walkabout may have Aboriginal roots in Australia, and the vision quest is associated with Native American traditions, the journey is not unique to only those locations. That is why that film eventually led me to read about the archetypical “hero’s journey” and the search for the Holy Grail.

I wish I had a true vision quest or walkabout tale to tell you. I still hope that someday I will.

I have taken two much smaller journeys.  On one full moon weekend journey, with some guidance from someone who knew more about it than I did,  I sought my “guardian animal” in a vision or dream.

I wish I could say it was a wolf that I found because I have always felt an affinity to them, but it was a rabbit. (Of course, I was in New Jersey at the time, so a coyote would have been about as close as I was to come to a wolf – and we know the coyote is the trickster.)

I have also felt some kind of connection to rabbits since childhood.  The rabbit in my vision was quite real and I felt led me. I say that because I followed it and it never ran away but would stop, look back at me, wait, and then continue. I followed it for what seemed like a long time, and then, while I was looking at it, it disappeared.

That’s how I would describe it. Disappeared.

We were at the top of a rocky outcrop. There was a small stream ahead of us and down the rocks. I did not see a life direction or message in where I had been taken that day.  But I felt that I was at a place where I had a good, clear view. I did not know exactly where I was, but I was not lost. I could find my way back to where I had been, but I didn’t see where I needed to go next.

In the traditional Lakota culture, the Hanblecheyapi (vision quest) means “crying for a vision.”  I am still looking.

I Can’t Put a Number On It

I’m not a fan of those best-of and greatest lists. They are quite common at the end of each year. The best films, books, TV shows, records, actors etc. They are particularly annoying when the author puts a number on the list or Oscars-style you have to decide on only one winner.

The “ten-best” of anything is always going to be wrong for a lot of people who will disagree with the ranking or with those who didn’t make the list. Rolling Stone magazine recently posted a list of The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.” I knew when I saw the title they were in for some trouble. Even with 200 names, people were going to complain about someone being left off, and about the ranking of some who made the cut. Not that I am anything of an authority, but there were plenty of names I never heard of on that list. I see a lot of comments online saying “Where is Celine Dion?” That kind of list is bound to court controversy – and that’s probably one reason media sources and critics create them.

A friend asked me to send my list of the best films of 2022. I can’t do the best list. Even with all the films I did see last year, when I look at other best film lists I see contenders that I never saw. Plus, what I liked is just what I liked. I liked The Fabelmans and it made some lists, but I suggested it to friends and a few thought it was just okay. A film that my wife and I saw at the Montclair Film Festival last October and really liked was Linoleum.

The title didn’t help this very unusual independent film starring Jim Gaffigan and Rhea Seehorn, but we loved it. Then again, we met the director and producer and got to talk with them after the screening. And I like Gaffigan both as a comedian and as an actor in all the little films he has done. Rhea was one of the best things in a favorite show of the past few years, Better Call Saul.

I hope you see the film somewhere, somehow. It’s currently not available to rent, buy or stream but its U.S. release date is February 24, 2023. I’m also sure that a lot of people will not fall in love with it as we did. That’s why I don’t do best-of lists or rank anything.

I can’t really give you a good summary of the film without ruining it. Online it says “When the host of a failing children’s science show tries to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut by building a rocket ship in his garage, a series of bizarre events occur that cause him to question his own reality,” but that really doesn’t do it. It’s complicated in a good way. It’s the kind of film that I want to watch again just to see what I missed on the first viewing.

I just realized why I might have liked those two films. As a kid, I wanted to make movies. Like Steven Spielberg, I made films with a Super 8 movie camera. I didn’t take it as far as Spielberg and I didn’t become a director, but I get it.

In February of 1962, I wrote a letter to NASA astronaut John Glenn who had just returned from his historic flight in the tiny capsule named Friendship 7. This Mercury spacecraft circled Earth three times and then splashed down. He was an early hero of mine. I still have the letter and packet of materials I got in the mail from Glenn and NASA. I was not alone in wanting to be an astronaut. I was 8 years old. I did not become an astronaut. I did not become an astronomer, though I have spent a lot of time looking up at the sky, reading about it, and writing about it sometimes. I get it.

If Shakespeare Had the Chance to Write Screenplays

I used to tell my young students a story. There was a king who was killed by his evil and jealous brother so that he could take over the throne. The king’s son, the prince who should be the next king, is deceived by the uncle. Some student would inevitably interrupt me and call out “That’s The Lion King!” Well, yes, it is, but it’s also Hamlet. We would talk about it further. Nala is Ophelia, Timon and Pumbaa are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Rafiki is Horatio. Plus ghosts.

Of course, The Lion King is about lions and is both tragic and comedic – and almost everybody dies at the end of Hamlet.

William Shakespeare has been adapted in many ways for the screen. There are a lot of filmed versions of the plays. I think that if he had lived in our age, Will would have written for TV and the movies. He liked being popular, the money is good and I bet he could knock out series episodes easily. Since he’s not here, other writers have adapted his wonderful and copyright-free plots and characters frequently.

I saw the film Forbidden Planet when I was a kid. When I was in college, I realized it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero becomes Dr. Morbius and Prospero’s daughter Miranda becomes Altaira. The shipwrecked sailors are replaced by astronauts arriving on the planet.

My teacher in high school made it clear that West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet updated to gangs in New York City but with music and dancing. Would William have been surprised by it? Probably not, but he may have been surprised to see Warm Bodies (2013) where his plot gets the zombie treatment and “Juliet” falls in love with the wrong (dead) boy. Spoiler: reversing Will’s plot, Romeo is brought back to life thanks to her love in this version. Tragedy becomes “comedy” (in the Shakespearean sense).

The 2001 Othello update simply called O replaces warriors and the beautiful Desdemona with prep school students and basketball.

It’s harder to identify The Tempest as a source for HBO’s The White Lotus but Shakespeare does have some influence on this satire of the hospitality industry.

The romantic comedy She’s the Man is based on Twelfth Night. Both follow the confusing love-story plot.

And the film 10 Things I Hate About You is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and uses many of the play’s character names and a modern spin on the plot. Both center on two very different sisters. Will has the younger Bianca unable to marry until her strong-willed sister, Katherine “the shrew” is wed. In the 1999 film, Bianca can’t date until Kat does. I haven’t seen the film Deliver Us From Eva but I heard it is also based on the Shrew.

“Teen films” in particular seem to use Shakespeare quite a lot. It’s a bit of a stretch but 2004’s Mean Girls borrows some things from Julius Caesar and Macbeth including some of Bard’s language and themes. And it does have Gretchen’s Julius Caesar rant.

Of course, it’s not just Shakespeare that gets used for new screenplays. The teen favorite film Clueless is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma. I’m not sure Jane would immediately recognize Cher as Emma but the film’s plot parallels the novel’s but with modern twists.

One of my favorite recent takes on classics is the very imaginatively filmed Apple TV+’s Dickinson series which uses elements of Emily Dickinson’s life and lots of her poetry and wildly mixes period piece settings, characters, and costumes with modern music and references. It surprised me and I was quite taken with all 30 episodes.

The Euphoria of Expressionism

I haven’t watched the HBO series Euphoria but I keep seeing raves about it on social media. It is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. The second season hit this year. The reviews I had seen initially described it as a “teen” show since it follows a troubled 17-year-old who is “a drug addict just out of rehab and likely to end up back in rehab, and her high school friends.

It gets a majority of positive reviews, with praise for its cinematography, plot, score, and performances. The subject matter is mature and somewhat controversial for its nudity and sexual content. Some critics found the nudity and sexual content excessive considering the characters’ ages.

From the German Expressionist silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

What caught my attention this past week was the video (below) discussing the visual style of German Expressionism and its influence on later films and TV including Euphoria.

German Expressionism in films was a movement that used distorted sets and sharp contrasts of light and dark. The movement was initially confined to Germany due to the isolation the country experienced during World War I. In 1916, the government had banned foreign films so with supply down, demand went up for german films. . The demand from theaters to generate films led to an increase in domestic film production from 24 films in 1914 to 130 films in 1918. In American films, it was influential in what in a later movement we call “film noir.” In all instances, it is highly stylized, sometimes surreal, and not a style we often see used today. (Though there are “neo-noir” films.)

Many film historians consider German silent cinema to be far ahead of Hollywood films of that time when it comes to innovations and style. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by the movement from the very beginning. In 1924, he worked as an assistant director and art director at Babelsberg Studios near Berlin on the film The Blackguard. His set designs for that film are expressionistic. It is also seen in his directing, especially in some of his early, less well-known films. In his third film, The Lodger, Hitchcock used styles that the studio did not want used, such as Expressionist set designs, high contrast lighting, and trick camera work. One example of the latter is a shot of a man walking across a glass floor that is shot from below,

Another classic German Expressionist film is Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (German: Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens), an early vampire film that is an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This 1922 silent horror film is directed by F. W. Murnau.

Count Orlok’s shadow on a staircase in Nosferatu

Though not all Expressionist films are horror, most have at least elements of the thriller and suspense, either physical or mental. One later American example is The Night of the Hunter. This 1955 American thriller film is directed by Charles Laughton. The critical reaction to the film at its release was so strong that it is the only film Laughton directed. It stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. It is the story of a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal money hidden by her executed husband.

Expressionist lighting by Laughton puts Gish in silhouette and Mitchum lit in the background

It is a dark film based on a real serial killer. It was a commercial and critical flop at its release, but in the decades since its release, the film has been listed as one of the best American films. It often makes the list close to Citizen Kane, another classic that has an Expressionist style in many ways. The director of photography on The Night of the Hunter was Stanley Cortez, who also shot Orson Welles’ followup to Kane, the 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons.

Euphoria is not the only example we see today. The new Joel Coen interpretation of The Tragedy of Macbeth and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley have definite Expressionist elements.

Euphoria is Expressionist in its style of sets and cinematography, but not in its plot.

Here is the short video that inspired me to look back on Expressionism. And it might get me to check out Euphoria.

A short film by Thomas Flight that shows Expressionist influences

The Many Saints of Newark

I was not a regular viewer of The Sopranos when it was the big show to watch on HBO. I saw episodes but I have this aversion to most mob movies and shows. I can’t really explain it. The glorification of crime and violence? Maybe. But I did enjoy it when I saw a neighborhood or location that I know in an episode.

I suspect that is a common thing for all of you.  It happens for books too. I recall reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and being delighted that he was riding the #94 bus on Stuyvesant Avenue in Irvington, NJ just like I had done many times. His books were full of references to the Newark area that I knew intimately.

I met Roth very briefly once when his childhood home on Summit St. was being marked as a historic site. He lived there for his first 17 years. That dedication day, I walked over from my job at the nearby NJIT campus and he was standing outside. It was early and the press hadn’t really descended on him. I deliberately did not say or ask him anything literary. We talked about the Weequahic Diner.

The trailer for the prequel to The Sopranos story came out this month. The Many Saints of Newark will be in theaters and streaming on HBOMax starting October 1.

The film is directed by Alan Taylor and written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. It is a prequel to Chase’s HBO series The Sopranos. The film stars Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, and Vera Farmiga. But I suspect that a lot of attention will go to Michael Gandolfini who plays young Tony (Anthony) Soprano. I’ve seen him in The Deuce but this is clearly his big role. He is the son of Marcy and James Gandolfini, so there will be plenty of critics who say he only got the part because his father played Tony on HBO. We’ll see.

The film is set in the 1960s and 1970s in Newark, New Jersey. The 1967 riots in the city – which I recall all too well since I was living in the neighboring Irvington and my grandparents still lived in Newark – are a backdrop to the film. It was a turning point for the city, and the turn was downward. There was a “white flight” from the city after 1967. The film looks particularly at the tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities.

I’m no Sopranos expert but I don’t remember Tony’s childhood being a major part of the stories. But it is a good choice for the prequel because Anthony is growing up in a very charged time in Newark and America’s history. Anthony and I would be about the same age then.

I don’t know much about Jersey gangsters, but in the film, there is a move on the powerful DiMeo crime family in the city. Anthony idolizes his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, who influences the teenager in ways that clearly foreshadow his own mob boss Tony Soprano life.

posterThough the film is all about Newark, like most films, the locations are in many places, including some that stand-in for the Newark of 50 years ago. They started shooting in Brooklyn back in spring 2019 and then moved to Newark that summer.

Newark’s Branford Place was a focal point fixed to look more 1960s. There are lots of places I recognize just from production stills and the trailer. They remade the old Adams Theatre marquee, and redid the sign for Hobby’s Delicatessen to look as it had looked before. My parents took me to see Ben Hur when I was quite young at the Adams Theatre. I went to Hobby’s for lunch in my time at NJIT many years later.

Adams theater

I was doing some work the summer of 2019 in Paterson and caught them filming scenes at a recreated Satriale’s Pork Store there.

People obsessed with The Sopranos do “tours” of many of the locations. When James Gandolfini died, people left flowers on the driveway of the house used as Tony’s home which is near where I live now. So, Sopranos locations seem to have been a part of my youth and adult lives.

Here are some of the locations used that people tour.

The Sopranos home: Aspen Drive, North Caldwell
Christopher’s new house: Baldwin Ct, Fairfield.
Green Grove Convalescent Home is Green Hill Senior Living and Rehabilitation, Pleasant Valley Way, W. Orange.
Janice & Richie’s house: Westmount Dr., Livingston.
Livia Soprano’s house: Gould Street, Verona.
Johnny Sack’s house: Fox Run, North Caldwell.
Kearny Boat Launch: Bellville Pike at Passaic Ave.
Pizzaland: Belleville Turnpike, North Arlington.
Satriale’s Pork Store: 101 Kearny Avenue, Kearny.
Skyway Diner: Central Ave. & 2nd St., Kearny.
Harsimus Cemetery: Newark Ave., Jersey City
Bada Bing strip club: Satin Dolls, Route 17, Lodi.

I still see people taking photos and wanting to sit in the booth at Holsten’s Restaurant where the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos was shot. It’s on Broad Street in Bloomfield.

Mr. Softee

It doesn’t have to be a place that takes me back. I saw a shot of Anthony inside a Mr. Softee ice cream truck and immediately I hear its annoying constantly playing “music” as it wandered my hometown streets and showed up at our neighborhood park and at baseball games. I was a Good Humor ice cream truck customer, but the truck triggers memories.

The film’s title, The Many Saints of Newark, is a reference to the translation of the family name of Anthony’s uncle, Moltisanti. It translates as “many saints” which is surely a bit of Chase’s ironic, dark humor.

Will I see the movie? Sure, probably streaming on HBO. I won’t do any tours but I do like seeing those places on film. It is an odd kind of appeal since I can see those places in person any day. Somehow, seeing these places on a screen or a printed page somehow elevates them. Art imitates life.