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Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009

IU professor's new book, 'The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies' dissects cult classic film

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Oct. 7, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Somewhere in the world, right at this moment, someone is watching the cult-classic 1998 Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski and sipping a white Russian.

Ed Comentale

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

Ed Comentale

Print-Quality Photo

Just ask Ed Comentale, an associate professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, who co-wrote and edited an upcoming book of essays analyzing the movie, The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies (Nov. 1, IU Press). Prior to its release, the book has already been previewed in The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.

Essentially, the film is about Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a Los Angeles dropout, who, mistaken for a millionaire with the same last name, comes home to find his favorite rug soiled ("It really tied the room together.") and quickly gets mixed up in a mystery that involves German nihilists, the Hollywood porn industry and league bowling. But the plot is almost beside the point; the Coens concocted this shaggy-dog story as a vehicle for their own postmodern vision of late-century America as a melting pot of cinematic icons and genres.

The 21 essays in the book, written by both fans and scholars, address the film's many influences -- which include singing westerns, bowling noir, Holy Grail legends and the 1960s -- and its contemporary connections to the first Iraq war, the boomer generation, slackerdom, collecting culture, the automobile industry and college life.

"Any cult film has multiple points of identification," said Comentale, who co-wrote the book's introduction with Aaron Jaffe, associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. Jaffe received his Ph.D. in English from IU Bloomington in 2001. "But this film scrambles the entire cultural DNA. It's a western, a noir, a Vietnam flick, a buddy flick, a sports flick -- all at the same time."

Beneath it all, the generational struggle between boomers and hippies resonates with a new generation of college kids who feel pressure to achieve, who are looking for a way of finding happiness that isn't dictated by parents or the education system, he said.

A longtime fan of the quirky films made by reclusive writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen, Comentale didn't initially plan to write a book on Lebowski. He started out just trying to think of a way to help his students navigate a challenging course in literary theory.

"I asked myself, 'How do I teach this dense philosophy in a way that might be fun for them?'" Comentale said. "Essentially, I mapped out the trends -- Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstruction -- onto the Coens' films, from Raising Arizona to Fargo all the way up to Lebowski."

Organizers of Lebowski Fest, an annual celebration of all things Lebowski that began in 2002 in Louisville, Ky., heard about Comentale's class and invited him to present at the festival. (Lebowski Fest has since spread to cities including New York, Boston, San Diego and Washington, D.C.)

"They were looking for some academic credibility, and we were looking for some mainstream attention, so we quickly whipped up an entire conference for the fans," he said.

Soon, Comentale was knee-deep in Lebowskiana, working with Jaffe to compile a book of analyses on the film, considered the first cult film of the DVD era.

"Unlike earlier cult films, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where you had to go to the theater for a screening, this was a film that could be enjoyed anywhere at any time of day," said Comentale. "It insinuated itself into the culture through small groups and repeat viewings. In a way, it's a slack film for a slacker audience, who couldn't be bothered to change the channel, and it established its own cult one dorm room at a time."

"The Year's Work In Lebowski Studies"

Comentale said the interaction between fans and scholars helps both groups do their jobs better. "Lebowski fans engage in two kinds of behaviors -- quoting and costuming. They are obsessive citationers. They'll spend hours tracking down arcane details and references, following obscure allusions and references . . . and that's what scholars tend to do as well, but without all the costumes and the booze. We hope to learn from each other by making scholarship more social and making fan culture more adventurous."

Comentale was amazed at how many fomer English majors attended Lebowski Fest, but he ultimately saw the Dude himself as a model scholar. "In a way, the Dude is the last person you want on the case, but he's not stupid. His mind is slack, not careless, and this is what allows him to solve the mystery. We wanted our contributors to try out his method, so that it would free them to make more interesting leaps and connections in their own work."

The book is fun, Comentale said, but never condescending. "It's one of those films that generates an endless conversation," he said. "There's no limit to what you can say seriously about that movie. If you want to talk Shakespeare and Lebowski, you'll find it there. Bartleby and Lebowski -- it's in there."

On Wednesday, Oct. 14, Comentale will discuss the film in an open-to-the-public "fireside chat" at Collins Living-Learning Center in the Collins Coffeehouse from 7:30-9:30 p.m. He'll first speak with the film playing behind him, commenting on the action, then open the floor for group discussion. Seating is limited.

Next up for Comentale is a book that tracks the history of vernacular music in America from early blues and country to rockabilly and pop.

"Where most people think of this music as rootsy and traditional, I'm trying to show how strangely modern it seemed to early listeners, how putting on the radio or the record player allowed listeners to think and feel about their lives in more modern and progressive ways."

As for Lebowski, Comentale still loves to talk about the film with students, and he will continue to teach it in his theory courses. He says, though, "There comes a time to move on and try out other ways of thinking about the world -- I probably reached that point the first time a student called me 'dude.'"

For more information about Ed Comentale, see http://www.iub.edu/~engweb/faculty/Edward-Comentale.html. To order a copy of the book, see http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=120916. For more information about IU Press, see http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/.

To arrange an interview with Comentale, please contact Jennifer Piurek, 812-856-4886, jpiurek@indiana.edu.