Culture Calendar

Lebowski Achievement

A few words on a genuine phenomenon

By John Chandler July 20, 2009

Incredible facsimiles of Jesus Quintana, Maude, Walter, and the Dude will be out in force at Lebowski Fest on Wednesday and Thursday.

This may come as a shock to most of you, but I’m a bit misanthropic. I don’t trust people, and I avoid large groups if at all possible. I tend to keep acquaintances at a distance (a warm distance, but a distance nonetheless) until they pass certain crucial “friendship” tests. And if they pass, I will then impose myself upon them until they’re obliged to fetch a restraining order. Sorry, that’s just how I roll.

One of those tests is how they feel about the Coen Brothers flick The Big Lebowski. Me, I adore it. I could watch it on an endless loop for a month and I would not consider it a waste of time. From Jeff Bridges’ note-perfect portrayal of the Dude (“the man for his time and place”) to the tiniest supporting role, it’s a movie stuffed to the gills with deft cinematic and literary references (Raymond Chandler, anyone?), surprising warmth, and relentless belly laughs. It might be the most quotable film made in the last 15 years.

The movie barely registered a box-office blip during its 1998 theatrical run, but the years have been kind to The Big Lebowski, the story of a man who wants justice for his peed-upon rug. It’s a legitimate cult hit, inspiring festivals, revival screenings (it’s the Clinton Street Theater’s most successful movie behind The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and all kinds of impromptu goofy happenings. Remember Cinco de Lebowski earlier this year, when scores of Dudes marched from Laurelhurst Park to the Bagdad Theater?

At least some of the credit (blame?) for the exponential growth of the Lebowski movement can be laid at the feet of Will Russell and his friends, a group of thirtysomethings from Louisville who threw the very first Lebowski Fest in October 2002. Held at a low-rent bowling alley in Louisville, the fest featured standard-issue Lebowski tropes like a costume competition, trivia, and (obviously) plenty of bowling. “We were expecting like 20 people, and 150 came out,” Russell recalls. “A few months later, we started the website.” Word of mouth on the Internet fueled the fervor.

“It started out as a joke, and now it’s this big ridiculous thing,” says Russell, who’s also a co-author of I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, a very funny book about the phenomenon. “It’s like, Why is this still going on? It just gets perpetually more and more ridiculous. But it’s a lot of fun.”

Russell, who used to play in a rock band with fellow fest founder Scott Shuffitt, describes these rolling Lebowski shindigs as something akin to a Star Trek convention, “except that we drink more and bowl more. It’s still nerdy, but it’s a more hedonistic type of nerd.”

But what is it about The Big Lebowski that continues to inspire Lebowski Achievers (the Lebowski fandom equivalent of a Deadhead) across the nation to don their Dude bathrobes or to grow that peculiar brand of beard known as a chin strap in order to look like John Goodman as the hotheaded Walter Sobchak? Whatever the appeal, it takes a while to really succumb to the movie’s oddball charms. “I saw it in 1998, and I was kind of indifferent,” Russell says. “It wasn’t until like the third time I saw it, on VHS in 2001, that I realized that this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life.”

And there’s nothing Lebowski Achievers enjoy more than quoting their favorite lines. I’m kind of partial to “Is this your homework, Larry?” or perhaps Jesus Quintana’s (John Turturro) threat to Walter about what he’ll do if Walter pulls a gun on him while bowling. I can’t really go into it, but trust me, it’s a scream.

If any other Achievers feel like chiming in with quotes from the movie or stories about why it’s become such a phenomenon, please do so. See you at Lebowski Fest! I’ll be enjoying a beverage and trying not to cuss.

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