Some movies become classics because they speak to something universal about the human condition. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a good example: just about everyone can relate to Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey. No, you don’t run a savings and loan in upstate New York in the 1940s and no, you probably have never been visited by an intellectually-disabled angel. But yes, you have stood on that bridge, looking down at the water, thinking about how badly things have gone for so long, what a mess you’ve made of everything, and just how damned hard life is.
So that’s one kind of classic. Let’s call it the everyman type. (Apologies for the sexism, but “everyperson” is too ugly a word.) However unusual the specifics of the narrative are, the main character(s) have an experience just about everyone in the audience can relate to. You and your buddies probably never went on a hiking trip looking for a body, but at some point in your childhood, you got your first real taste of independence and the danger that comes with it. The bittersweet aftertaste of that experience is probably why you never turn off Stand By Me if you catch it showing on TV.
There’s another type of classic, though, that manages to convince specific groups of people that the movie is speaking especially to them, or that it’s expressing themes or ideas that are particular to their group. I’ve written about Groundhog Day before: Buddhists, Hindus, Existentialists, Aristotelians, and Christians of every stripe have felt a special connection to the film. They feel that this movie tells a story that is uniquely theirs.
I’m going to call this kind of movie the secret code type. Secret code movies manage to convince groups of people that they’re speaking directly to them without coming out and spoiling the secret for everyone else. These are entertaining movies for everyone who watches them, but, hey, if you’re in the club, and you have the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Ring, then you get to see the deeper meaning of the film.
I think The Big Lebowski falls into this category. Zen Buddhists (or just Zen practitioners if you’re one of those folks who believes that Zen is somehow not a form of Buddhism) jumped on this one early. The film’s star, Jeff Bridges, apparently endorses this view, seeing as he’s co-authored a book on this topic with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman entitled The Dude and the Zen Master.
Existentialists also claim The Dude, however. So do Taoists. I recently came across a group of Stoics discussing Lebowski, too. A whole new religion has even formed around the teachings of Lebowski: The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, which claims to have 120,000 ordained Dudeist priests.
They’re all right because they’re all wrong. They’re right in the sense that The Dude expresses ideas that show up in Buddhism, Taoism, Existentialism, etc. They’re wrong, however, in believing that he belongs especially to them. The Dude, much like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, expresses these ideas because they’re common ideas for much of humanity.
In other words, the deepest secret of the secret code movie is that it’s actually an everyman movie. The reason The Big Lebowski and Groundhog Day speak to you is the same reason It’s a Wonderful Life does: because you’re a human being. Existentialism, Taoism, and Zen are all ways of trying to make sense of the kinds of universal issues that all humans face.