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True Bliss: Celebrating The Big Lebowski

Nikki Tranter

Lebowski Fest celebrates the irrational exuberance of a cult classic community.

I just say it's a comedy about bowling and move on.
� Will Russell, Lebowski Fest creator
The Big Lebowski is an important film to me because it reminds me that I am just a dude trying to get my rug back.
� Scott Shuffitt, Lebowski Fest creator

It's the kind of thing that happens with Star Trek movies and Xena, not a neo-noir flick with Busby Berkley dance numbers, porno clips, and ten-pin bowling at its core. Just how Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, managed to spawn one of the most successful film-festivals of the new millennium is a puzzle even Lebowski Fest inventors Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt can't quite work out. They have their suspicions, but nothing concrete explains how a gig they organized for a proposed 20 friends to celebrate the film ended up a 3,000-strong mega hit that became an annual and anticipated social event on the calendars of hundreds of Lebowski-lovers, who arrive (some from as far away as Jordan) dressed as characters from the film, reciting several memorized lines from the movie.

The film itself offers few answers regarding its appeal, not because it's not worthy of adoration, but because, on the surface, it doesn't necessarily stand out as any better or worse than other Coen films that are (as yet) fest-less. In the film, The Big Lebowski refers to Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a humanitarian war veteran with Presidential accolades on his wall and his own society for disadvantaged children. Following a case of mistaken identity another Jeffrey Lebowski, this one an unemployed, ultra-laid back former '60s radical who goes by the name The Dude (Jeff Bridges), finds himself undershorts-deep in a kidnapping plot involving the rich Lebowski's young wife, Bunny (Tara Reid).

It's more than a basic enthusiasm or infatuation, then, that brings people to events like Lebowski Fest, but an overwhelming need to communicate that enthusiasm.

It all starts when henchmen sent to recover money from the philanthropic Lebowski mistakenly pay The Dude a visit, smashing his appliances and peeing on his rug in an effort to intimidate him: "Your wife owes money to Jackie Treehorn, that means you owe money to Jackie Treehorn!" Only after The Dude convinces them of the all-too obvious -- that he's not married and not any kind of entrepreneur -- do the henchmen leave, trodding on the pee splattered rug as they go. The rug winds up at the center of the piece, when Dude decides he wants compensation for it from old, rich Lebowski as it was his rug the henchmen meant to soil. And besides, according to Dude, the thing "really tied the room together".

Replacing a rug, though, apparently isn't so easy and Dude with his best friend, Vietnam veteran Walter (John Goodman) find themselves battling killer nihilists, pornographers, and a near-mute teenage car thief all while trying to recover the darn rug and win the play-offs in their home league bowling championships.

On the brink of the 4th Annual Lebowski Fest, PopMatters spoke to Russell and his Fest co-creator Shuffitt, about the film in an attempt to get to the bottom of its growing popularity. For Russell, labeling The Big Lebowski to non-obsessives as "a comedy about bowling" renders unnecessary the need for plot description, which tends to confuse. Russell himself knows firsthand what the confusion can be like. "The first time I saw the movie, I was somewhat indifferent," he says. "Like so many [fans] I've talked to, I just didn't get it the first time. I think I got caught up in the plot, and who stole the cash and who peed on whose rug, but the plot is ultimately unimportant. It's about the characters and the brilliant dialogue."

The dialogue in the film is meticulously structured throughout the film to the point that characters repeat dialogue uttered earlier by other characters in the film in new and entirely feasible contexts -- "Where's the fuckin' money Lebowski?" is screamed a few times by those peeing henchmen, for instance, and by Dude himself when he confronts The Big Lebowksi at film's end). The dialogue means a lot to Russell as much of his own language incorporates certain phrases from the film, and even a touch of Sam Elliott's cowboy twang (Elliott, as The Stranger, acts as the film's narrator). When asked, for example, what he considers the highlight of Lebowski Fest he notes: "It's the bowling -- it really ties the fest together." You've got to wonder if he quotes Dude in every day conversation or only when discussing the film and his tribute to it.

Then again, this incorporation speaks to his passion for the film; the kind he says is necessary to building and shaping Lebowski Fest. "It's a deep passion," he says. "Lebowski Fest was born of passion and thrives because of passion. Scott and I are just two fans who have gathered others like us."

Those others, according to Shuffitt, share The Dude's subdued nature. "Seems like we all like to party and for the most part don't get hung up on too many things," Shuffitt says. "The amount of people that showed up and where they came from and the fact that they came in costume -- those things were really far over my expectations." Russell agrees, moving a step closer to the reason behind the coming together of fans to celebrate the film -- Fest attendees, Russell notes, "are very much like me and I understand them."

It's an age-old, or at least convention-old, belief that Star Trek fans flock to conventions, as do horror movie lovers, Buffy-buffs with hopes of finding likeminded folks who share their obsessions and can discuss, in depth and detail, every element of that which is being honored. It's more than a basic enthusiasm or infatuation, then, that brings people to events like Lebowski Fest, but an overwhelming need to communicate that enthusiasm. It's true, too, that the more passionate fans manage to find instantly accessible character traits in people who share their fandom to similar degrees, which goes a long way to understanding why everyone at Lebowski Fest is an instant friend.

There's a great example of how this instant and overwhelming connection in Office Space, itself a film that inspires dialogue emulation and cultish fans. When Jennifer Aniston's character, Joanna, has lunch with the film's protagonist, Peter (Ron Livingston), she's not entirely comfortable -- he's a stranger, after all, and an overly cocky one at that. Eyes darting about, restless on the date, she snaps to attention when Peter suggests they go back to his place to watch Kung Fu. "I love Kung Fu, she says, and suddenly Peter's not just a dude picking her up in a restaurant -- he's a real person with potential to spare and with just two words, she immediately sees all of it.

This level of blinding obsession creates a bridge between others who understand certain characters and film philosophies. In the case of The Big Lebowski, Dude and Walter are almost anti-heroes, who inspire reverence despite this. Walter, especially, is arrogant and argumentative. He's self-involved, forever ranting about his own beliefs and in his own interest. He's so blustering, in fact, that he frustrates the bejeezus out of Dude, who is otherwise a master of Zen-like calmness.

But Walter isn't just arrogant. It's hard to listen to Walter's ravings and not agree with him on at least a small level, whether he's ranting about the tenets of National Socialism or the proper care of full-bred Pomeranian pups. This attraction to character makes Walter a guy to want to emulate. He's brash, confident, and completely fearless. It's not easy to take advantage of him. The same goes for Dude. These men are clearly rebelling against forced ideals to extreme degrees --Walter will pull a gun out if a fellow bowler attempts to cheat him, for instance, and Dude will ignore all financial commitments like rent, and write checks for a single cartons of milk at Ralph's, and neither will bat an eye. The film presents this carefree ideal, a resistance of the menial. It's a desire for personal freedom, and Russell says it's the main thing fans relate to.

"It's the bums versus the squares," he says. "The greedy materialists versus the spiritual man living in the moment, living for yourself, being true to yourself, abiding in the face of adversity, not getting caught up in the rat race... finding your true bliss." Russell says that no matter their backgrounds, Lebowski Fest attendees, ranging from "18-year-old college students to 60-year-old Vietnam veterans, Wall Street professionals to real life dudes who are unemployed", share these similarities. They also share, he says, a great sense of irony, and the specific humor at which the film's creators aim their works.

"Joel and Ethan Coen have a very intelligent and specific wit." Russell says. "Most movies are made to appeal to mass audiences so everyone has pretty much the same experience with the film. This movie was not made for the masses, and, therefore, those who do resonate with it, resonate deeply."

Still, as much adoration for the Coen's film as Russell and Shuffitt exhibit, the filmmakers are yet to appear at a Fest. However, Bridges, Huddleston, Peter Stormare (who plays Nihilist #1), and bit-parters Robin Jones (Ralph's checkout chick), Lu Elrod (the coffee waitress Walter verbally assaults), Jack Kehler (Dude's long-suffering landlord), and Jerry Haleva (Saddam Hussein) have all taken part. Bridges' appearance was a coup for Russell and Shuffitt.

"Having [Jeff at] the event in LA (in March of this year's Lebowski Fest West) was without a doubt the high watermark for me," Shuffitt says. Russell agrees. "Jeff is a genuinely sweet guy," Russell says. "His characters seem so true because he is so true. The world is blessed to have people like him."

The real Dude, Jeff Dowd, appeared at the fourth annual Lebowski Fest in Louisville over the July 22-24 weekend. They Might Be Giants were also there, and fans participated in everything from the Marmot Fling to the Sheriff of Malibu Coffee Mug Toss -- all film-related stuff, of course. As usual, the day was celebrated with sufficient helpings of White Russians and a hell of a lot of bowling, with the organizers suitably stunned with the 3,000 attendees.

"We continue to be amazed with each passing day as the phenomenon grows, Russell says. "It's all been so amazing. The camaraderie of the fans is something that brings me tears of joy at each event."

Shuffitt says he can see the event continuing for a long while. "Look at the Wizard of Oz folks," he says, noting another movie phenomenon that continues to draw obsessive crowds. "Those guys have been doing that thing for a couple decades now." Russell, though, has a more Dude-like approach to his future vision: "If it all went away tomorrow, I could die with a smile on my face without feeling like to good lord gypped me."

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