cover story

The Dude

Drake prof examines why he drinks the iconic White Russian

By Douglas Burns
Illustration by Justin Cline


Drown the iPhone. Sewer that Blackberry. Bury the laptop in the backyard snow.

It’s time to don a raggedy robe and kick on a pair of jellies slippers. Don’t just let your hair down. Let it grow down.

And find a White Russian. Post haste.

In a world of boomeranging e-mails, constant chatter and 24/7 connectivity, it’s time to go all 1998 on 2010.

We need The Dude, dudes.

As in Lebowski, Jeff Lebowski (aka The Dude), the iconic slacker who helped turn the 1998 Joel and Ethan Coen film “The Big Lebowski” into a cult classic.

Don’t take it from Cityview, man.

This is the word from a Drake University professor who recently penned an essay on The Dude’s drink, the White Russian. Anyone who has seen “The Big Lebowski” cannot fathom the first frothy sip of this sweet intoxicant without conjuring images of Jeff Bridges.

Craig N. Owens, an associate professor of English at Drake, is one of the featured authors in “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” a book put together by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe and published by Indiana University Press.

A story on the book recently earned top billing in The New York Times, which spent some time ruminating over Owens’ ruminations on the White Russian.

The publication of the book came on the heel of the annual Lebowski Fest in Louisville, Ky. Yes, there is such a thing.

Why does “The Big Lebowski” deserve a book? Why does it still have such life and interest a dozen years after it hit the screen, giving Bridges his most memorable role until 2009’s “Crazy Heart”?

“I can tell you why it still interests me,” Owens, 35, said in a recent interview with Cityview at his office overlooking the Varsity Theater on the Drake campus. “It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which isn’t to say that it’s not a serious movie. But it’s not sanctimonious.”

There’s really no way to sum up “The Big Lebowski” in neat newspaper paragraphs. Its plot lines are many and careen wildly. Let’s just say it starts with Bridges in a robe — or a housecoat — flip-flopping through a grocery store in search of cream for his White Russians. Lebowski hilariously writes out a check for 69 cents to cover the cost of the ingredient for the White Russian. When he returns home, he’s tossed around, and given an unceremonious swirly in his toilet by intruders who mistake this slacker extraordinaire for a millionaire Lebowski.

Madness ensues, ensnaring the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturo, Julianne Moore, John Goodman, Tara Reid and Steve Buscemi in spectacularly entertaining supporting roles. The movie also has bowling, marijuana and nihilists.

Throughout all the craziness, we are witness to Bridges as about the most laid back cat daddy of a dude to grace the big screen. He’s mesmerizing in one hell of a role for which there was really no precedent. Bridges and the Coens created The Dude, based off real life slacker Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, and with him, an ethos that waves off the straight-jacketing of American life, man.

“The themes of it, the takeaway from the film offer an antidote to a world of anxiety, a culture that tells us we must continually be in motion, we have to continually have near-term, middle-term and long-term goals and we have to be working diligently and in a rigorous way to achieve them,” Owens says. “In a world that values productivity, I think that this film says, ‘No, relax.’ There is something to say, for if only occasionally, but at least occasionally, taking a step back from that and asking if it isn’t a limit.”

This is why the movie (which you can download immediately now on Netflix) appeals to people who are Lebowski-ing their way through life as happy underachievers as well as corporate monkeys who must make do with daydreams of robes and White Russians, says Owens.

“For those who aren’t (caught in the capitalist chase), it validates that life. And for those who are, it offers a kind of fantasy utopia,” he says.

Over the last decade, the pressures and anxieties the film responds to have gotten heavier and worse, observes Owens. How may e-mail accounts do you have? How may cell phones? Tweet that. Kindle this. Now. Now. Now.

Owens says it is fitting that the movie begins with two thugs knocking on a door trying to get a hold of Jeff Lebowski. Not the Dude, but another one.

“It’s almost like the film is already predicting that whole universe of anxieties, ‘I’m always available, I’m always online, I’m always able to be gotten a hold of and consequently I have only a pixilated identity, only a digital identity,’” says Owens.

In his essay, “The White Russian,” Owens delves deeply into the connection between The Dude and his cocktail of choice.

Other than James Bond’s martini, no drink is as closely associated with a movie, Owens said in the interview.

“The White Russian was to The Dude as to the martini is to James Bond,” Owens says. “It’s almost an extension of his persona.”

Why does The Dude drink a White Russian instead of a Jack and Coke, or Sex On The Beach, or a Pabst, or Miller, or Bud?

“The White Russian has every possibility of being a very precious drink, of being a little too cute or a little too retro, like retro in the same way that ’50s diners nowadays are retro,” Owens says. “In other words, it can be a poser’s drink.”

The White Russian (generally made with vodka, Kahlua and cream) is one of the easiest alcoholic drinks on earth to consume. “It’s like a milkshake,” notes Owens.

You don’t have to think about it when you are drinking it. Case in point: The Dude doesn’t mix his White Russian but rather throws ice cubes in on it.

This “strips posing right out of it,” says Owens.

The Bond drink, which Owens has examined in earlier writings, is the vodka martini, “shaken not stirred.” And that’s appropriate for Bond.

Vodka has an ability to blend with any drink and almost take on an invisible quality, says Owens.

“Vodka as a drink is the secret agent of alcoholic beverages,” Owens says. “Gin, immediately you know when you’re drinking something with gin in it and of course any of the non-clear distilled liquors have all kinds of character. But the fact is that James Bond doesn’t really have any character at all and assumes whatever character he needs to assume to get a job done, and that’s what vodka does.”

The New York Times good-naturedly razzed Owens for getting so detailed about a drink. Truth be told, Owens says he doesn’t drink a White Russian very often.

For his part, Owens has carved out a career with far too much achievement for The Dude.

He’s taught Irish Literature and literary Interpretation and directed plays by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Oscar Wilde, Tony Kushner, and others.

A native of Shelbyville, Ind., Owens earned his undergraduate degree in Latin and English at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and a doctorate in English at Indiana University. He came to Drake in 2003.

Owens and his wife, Yasmina Madden, a visiting professor at Drake, have an 18-month-old son, Graham. Owens’s office has several pictures of Graham, as well as a poster of John Belushi wearing that famous “college” sweatshirt in “Animal House.”

Owens says he enjoys writing about movies and other elements of popular culture that are often dismissed as having no substantive relevance.

“I find that I’m continually drawn to asking serious questions about things that people don’t generally take seriously,” he says.

He recently wrote an essay about the film “Monster In Law,” which he acknowledges is a supremely forgettable star vehicle for Jennifer Lopez.

He thought the mother-in-law/mother dynamic was not the usual one, and wrote an essay for the book “Mommy Angst: Motherhood In American Popular Culture,” which was published around same time as the Lebowski book.

He doesn’t see a connection between Owens, professor in the classroom, and Owens, the author of these pieces.

Prior to writing the Lebowski piece, Owens scoured the Net to see what people were saying about Lebowski and White Russians. He intentionally avoided archival research and traditional sourcing, and watched the film many times with pen in hand and noted each time he saw the White Russian.

In the interview with Cityview, Owens spent a good deal of time talking about the term “dude.”

It’s sprinkled throughout conservations today and used as punctuation and filler for certain generations, from X on down.

“The word ‘dude,’ the oldest use of it that I can think of it would be the idea of a dude ranch in the 1940s and ’50s, where what you had were sort of overly stylized cowboy types out on the range,” Owens says.

“Now we use dude to mean relaxed, unpretentious,” Owens says. “We use it in relaxed, unpretentious conversation.”

What happens, Owens says, is that people will say “Hey dude,” “What’s up dude?” “Listen dude, this is what I mean.”

Dude is a way to inject an air of relaxation into the room.

“‘The Dude,’ of course, putting the ‘The’ in front of it elevates it,” Owens says of Lebowski. “He becomes the quintessence of dudeness if you will.”

The ultimate Dude, for those students of Dude-ology, is, without question or a hint of hesitation, Bridges’ The Dude.

Could anyone else have pulled off the role?

“It’s hard to imagine,” Owens says. “It’s hard to imagine the role before you think of Jeff Bridges.”

All of this said, Owens has seen the movie in “bits and pieces” 10 times over 20 years, and he would not list it as one of favorite movies.

“I can’t imagine ‘The Big Lebowski’ would immediately jump to mind as among them,” he says. “And I think that’s part of its charm. I think that’s because like The Dude himself, the film sort of hangs back and is happy to occupy the margins of the culture. That’s the nature of a cult film.” CV


Caption: Drake Professor Craig N. Owens is one of the featured authors in “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies.”


Caption: Professor Owens wrote the essay, “The White Russian.”



‘The Big Lebowski’
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
1998, Rated R, 117 minutes

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip
Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Tara Reid, Peter Stormare and Sam Elliott

Famous Quotes:

“The Dude abides.”
— The Dude (Bridges)

“Obviously you’re not a golfer.”
— The Dude (Bridges)

“That rug really tied the room together.”
— The Dude (Bridges)

“Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage here!”
— The Dude (Bridges)

“Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not ‘Mr. Lebowski.’ You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
— The Dude (Bridges)

“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”
— Walter Sobchak (Goodman)

“You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me.”
— Walter Sobchak (Goodman)

“I told those fucks down at the league office a thousand times that I don’t roll on Shabbos!”
— Walter Sobchak (Goodman)


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