Bigger than Lebowski
Ten years after the seminal stoner film’s release, local fans fete The Big Lebowski at West Sacramento’s Capitol Bowl
Why does The Dude still abide?
Or, put another way, how did a 10-year-old comedy film from writer-director Joel Coen and his screenwriting partner and brother, Ethan, turn into a pop-culture touchstone, one that has inspired numerous themed festivals centered around bowling, the ensemble cast’s favorite pastime?
When The Big Lebowski was released on March 6, 1998, it opened modestly and did so-so at the box office. It wasn’t a blockbuster like the 1997 film Titanic; Lebowski recouped a bit more than its $15 million budget. But like so many cult hits, Lebowski‘s popularity mushroomed after it was released for home-video consumption, becoming the perfect focal point for friends to get stoned and watch together, and its script featured a ton of quotable lines—an embarrassment of riches of them, in fact—that took on lives of their own after the credits rolled.
So many lives that, in October 2002, a quartet of fans in Louisville, Ky., organized the first Lebowski Fest at the Fellowship Lanes there. They expanded to a two-day fete the following summer, and soon Lebowski Fest took to the road: Las Vegas; New York; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Seattle; and Chicago, and even overseas to Edinburgh, Scotland. On the weekend of September 5-6, Lebowski Fest will be held at multiple locations around San Francisco, which will serve as a release party for the 10th anniversary DVD, a collector’s edition that comes packaged in a bowling ball.
Lebowski Fest has spawned a cottage industry, with a Web site (www.lebowskifest.com) that is quite deep with content. There’s a ton of cool merch, and even a book: I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski and What-Have-You, by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, creators of Lebowski Fest.
Local musician and publisher Mike Blanchard, whose creative efforts have included local bands the Tattooed Love Dogs, the Whispering Chingaderos and the Bathtub Gins, along with the car-culture magazine Rust, had heard of Lebowski Fest, but he’d never been to one. He’d merely been looking for a hook around which to raise money for research toward a cure for multiple sclerosis, which his sister has been battling, and also for the Namaste Children’s House, an orphanage in Pokhara, Nepal, and a longtime passion for his wife, Laurieanne.
“We’ve always been big fans of the movie,” Blanchard said. “And I don’t know how it got to this, but we saw a book about it, or there was something, and then we got online and started looking up Lebowski Fest, and lo and behold there was this whole world of everything Lebowski that opened up.”
Billed as “The Big Lebowski Party,” Sacramento’s event will take place at the Capitol Bowl in West Sacramento on Sunday, August 24, from 2 to 6 p.m. in the bowling alley, and then into the alley’s lounge, the 300 Room, for a few hours afterward. “We have to make way for the league bowlers,” Blanchard said.
So what’s the appeal of The Big Lebowski, anyway?
“I just liked the characters,” Blanchard said. “Each person in it was such a crazy character: The Dude, with his own personal gestalt that goes along with The Dude, and Walter’s whole Jewish Vietnam-veteran thing. And then Maude Lebowski, a complete trust-fund art freak, which melds into the German nihilist thing.”
To explain: Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges, is a post-hippie burnout shambling his way through downbeat Los Angeles circa September 1991, existing on what appears to be a diet of White Russians and weed. “He’s [Fast Times at Ridgemont High‘s baked surfer] Jeff Spicoli all grown up,” Blanchard explained. Well, that, crossed with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson during his 1970s bathrobe period, and maybe Southern California hard-boiled mystery writer Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe Philip Marlowe, albeit incapacitated by a massive Thai-stick buzz.
In the beginning two thugs unexpectedly visit The Dude, who rough him up and urinate on his living-room rug, mistaking him for a different Jeff Lebowski—a wheelchair-bound Pasadena tycoon who spouts obnoxious up-by-the-bootstraps homilies. Lebowski the younger then heads to the bowling alley, his sanctuary, where he drinks beer and rolls with Walter Sobchak, a hair-trigger tempered Vietnam vet played by John Goodman, and Donny Kerabatsos, a surprisingly passive target for Sobchak’s abuse, nicely underplayed by Steve Buscemi. The Dude recounts how the thugs soiled a rug that “really tied the room together,” etc., and Sobchak—a character reportedly based in part on film director John Milius, of Red Dawn fame—gets so worked up he wakes The Dude from his usual White Russian torpor.
“Like any movie, there’s a certain suspension of disbelief,” Blanchard said. “Wash the fuckin’ rug. If they had just taken the rug out and put the hose on it, you’ve got no movie.”
Thus begins a misadventure that propels this unlikely trio through a decaying Los Angeles landscape filled with Ralphs supermarkets, 1950s Googie bowling alleys, grungy coffee shops, seedy pre-war apartments and other nonscenic bumps on the underbelly of Tinseltown paradise.
There’s a lot of Raymond Chandler in Lebowski, specifically in the offbeat cast of characters and the way they inhabit the nonglitzy (well, occasionally posh) milieu and interact with the protagonists in an often sub-rosa manner.
There are even direct homages to Chandler, one of them when The Dude visits porn king Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) at his Malibu beach house. After knocking back a loaded White Russian and hallucinating what’s arguably the greatest music video ever—a Busby Berkeley musical sequence with an art-deco bowling motif set to a Kenny Rogers and the First Edition cover of the Mickey Newbury song “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In),” replete with a psychedelic Glen Campbell guitar solo—The Dude finds himself staggering along the Pacific Coast Highway where he’s arrested and worked over by the local cops. Chandler called his lawless enclave Bay City, and it usually spelled trouble if his Marlowe ended up there, as it does for The Dude.
But Chandler never had any subtext of a Middle East war running through his stories. Lebowski begins with The Dude wandering through a Ralphs supermarket, writing a check for some half-and-half for his ongoing White Russian consumption. As he writes the check, dated September, 11, 1991 (10 years to the day before 9/11; the movie premiered in 1998), a TV in the background featured the first President Bush opining on Saddam Hussein. “This will not stand,” he asserted. “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”
Later, when The Dude gets an audience with the other Lebowski to address the problem of the soiled rug, he channels Bush the elder when the other Lebowski rebuffs him: “I do mind; The Dude minds. This will not stand, you know? This aggression will not stand, man.”
And even though Walter thinks applying violence will solve every problem, the invasion in the Iraq war seems to be bumping that sense of bravado up a notch. “Look at our current situation with that camel fucker over in Iraq. Pacifism is not something to hide behind,” he says at one point. And at another: “What have we here? A bunch of fig eaters wearing towels on their heads, trying to find reverse in a Soviet tank. This is not a worthy adversary.”
Perhaps one reason this movie resonates with audiences so well today is that we’ve still got a man named Bush in the White House and we’ve still got a war in Iraq, and we’ve still got a pervasive feeling of frustration, that no matter what the masses think, the government and military will wage war whenever and wherever they see fit.
Do people think and behave more strangely when their government is waging war somewhere, knowing that there’s nothing they can do about it? Judging from the interaction of the characters in Lebowski, yes.
And while The Dude is Everyman, other characters are keenly sketched, too. One of the more remarkable of those is Jesus Quintana, played by John Turturro, a rival Hispanic bowler whose obsessive approach to the sport, set to the Gipsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California,” is stunning to watch. Oh, and for back story, he’s a convicted child molester.
As The Stranger, the character played by Sacramento native Sam Elliott whose pithy commentary frames the beginning and end of Lebowski, concludes, “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”
But Lebowski is, at its core, a buddy flick—albeit one where the buddies get caught up in an awful lot of random weirdness, from which The Dude navigates his way out using the superior logic conferred by massive White Russian and marijuana consumption. And when things get too complicated, they just go bowling. Who can’t identify with that?