Are You Walter…or The Dude?

We all derive amusement and entertainment from a variety of sources. Some people dedicate endless hours to watching sports, others to reading. Some love the endless parade of trash and tragedy on daytime TV.

Me? I’m a sucker for movies.

By the time you’ve seen several thousand films (and for good measure, studied literature) it becomes difficult to find one that you haven’t already seen a hundred times. Most of the characters, situations and stories are predictable rehashes of other films. Not all, though.

Joel and Ethan Coen make refreshingly novel films that even jaded film buffs like me can enjoy. Their movies deal with the untidy business of human relationships and misunderstandings in ways that are, by turns, profound, profane, tragic, and hilarious. If you haven’t seen anything other than “Fargo” or “No Country For Old Men” and you like your entertainment a bit off-center, the wonder-brothers’ back-catalog is well worth your attention.

“The Hudsucker Proxy,” among my two or three favorite Coen brothers film, is a merry romp through a series of ridiculous circumstances and coincidences that shows the unlikely rise of an idealistic, irrepressible semi-idiot to the position of CEO. It’s practically a parody of leadership training.

I was thinking about that as I settled in (for probably the tenth time) the other night to watch “The Big Lebowski,” which follows the adventures of “the laziest man in Los Angeles.”

What other lessons in communication and leadership could be learned by watching The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and his pals go through mayhem and misadventure in 1990 L.A.?

Now, I wouldn’t advise always watching movies with The Gordon Model in mind, but in the cases of Jeff Lebowski and his bowling buddy Walter, I couldn’t help but be struck smack-dab in the face by something: Their behavior windows are mirror opposites of each other, and they’re both at one extreme.

the dude big lebowski personality at work leadershipAt the outset of the film, The Dude’s area of acceptance is wide-open. Even when he’s having his head shoved in his own toilet by a violent thug, you get a sense that he’d be perfectly content if the man would just get it over with and leave. When the second thug pollutes his area rug, he half-heartedly protests that it “really ties the room together,” but he isn’t bothered enough to actually take any sort of retaliatory action. He’s resigned. Even when it becomes apparent that the thugs are at the home of the wrong Jeff Lebowski, he seems mostly relieved to be rid of them. You don’t see The Dude chasing them down the street, demanding payback, holding a grudge…

…Until he makes the mistake of telling the story to Walter Sobchek (John Goodman).

If The Dude’s personal behavior window is wide open, Walter’s is nailed shut, chained over, and boarded up. There is apparently nothing that Walter finds acceptable (outside, of course, of his own behavior), and it doesn’t matter whether things have a tangible personal effect on him or not. He’s the classic hot-head, a loaded gun that’s always half-cocked, ready to take offense, and willing to fire with both barrels at anybody, any time, for any reason.

Walter believes another bowler stepped over the line on a throw; he produces a gun and threatens to shoot the player rather than allow him to mark the frame an 8 rather than a zero.

When the bowling team’s third member, Donny (Steve Buscemi), returns from bowling his frame and asks The Dude to catch him up on the conversation about the ruined rug, Walter bites his head off—a pattern of verbal abuse for minor (sometimes nonexistent) infractions that continues for the duration of the film.
And when The Dude makes the mistake of telling Walter about the defilement of his rug, it’s Walter’s mad overreaction that sets in motion the ill-considered confrontation with the other (Big) Lebowski that sets up the rest of the film.

For The Dude, his soiled rug was just, you know, kind of a bummer. For Walter, though, it was the equivalent of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the Kurdish regions of Iraq in 1990—it’s an affront worth killing (or dying) for. In urging The Dude to demand payment for his ruined rug from the actual target of the thugs, Walter even quotes the president (at the time), George H.W. Bush: “This aggression will not stand!”

Somewhere between The Dude’s incredibly laid-back, wide-open behavior window and Walter’s pathologically closed on, most of the rest of us fall on a day-to-day basis.

How does your personal behavior window look today?

Mine’s mostly open, but I DO have room-darkening drapes.

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