The first time he saw The Big Lebowski, Will Russell wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Bathrobes and White Russians? Mistaken identities and trophy-wife kidnappings? Viking bowling?
Russell wasn't alone in his perplexed reaction. When Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998 follow-up to Fargo screened in theaters, critics shrugged and audiences shunned it. The film barely broke even.
But Russell watched it again. And again. “The third time I saw it was magic,” he recalls. “I realized it was the funniest film I'd ever seen.”
Unlike his friend Russell, Scott Shuffitt didn't catch the film on the big screen. He saw it on tape. “And once it went in the VCR, it didn't come out for four or five years,” he laughs.
In 2002, Russell and Shuffitt, along with pals Bill Green and Ben Peskoe, decided to pay proper homage to “The Dude,” the film's slacker SoCal protagonist, with Lebowski Fest (www.lebowskifest.com), a campy two-day celebration in Louisville, Ken., that included a screening, live bands, outrageous costumes, and a night of unlimited bowling. It was The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a new generation.
Since then, the annual festival has exploded in popularity, spreading to new locations across the U.S. and spawning countless chapters of “Achievers” (don't you dare call them fans), who memorize the script and slave over their horned helmets and blue bowling jumpsuits.
This year, for the first time, San Diego is in on the recreation. On Sunday, July 26, House of Blues will host a screening of the film, followed by a headlining performance by Har Mar Superstar, the squat indie-dance phenom. The following night at Kearny Mesa Bowl, Dudes, Maudes and White Russians will share the lanes with strikes and spares.Suffice it to say, local Achievers are excited enough to pee on a rug. Or at least brush up on their lines.
“I probably think I know the lines better than I do,” says Tommy Hough, co-host of Mornings with Hansen and Tommy on FM 94/9. “It's a quotable movie, but it's not the kind of movie where you can drop a line out of nowhere, like Caddyshack or Animal House. The situation has to be just right, when you can look another person in the eye and say, ‘You know, that rug really did tie the room together.'”
Hough saw The Big Lebowski as a theater release. At the time, he was astonished to find fewer and fewer people when he returned for repeat viewings. Meanwhile, he found himself laughing harder and harder at the most random moments.
“This is going to sound presumptuous, but it's honest. If I wanted to make a comedy, Lebowski is the kind of comedy I'd want to make. The hero doesn't really have a clue as to what's going on, and yet he's still the sanest guy in the movie. There are bizarre non-sequiturs. There are scenes that don't have to be there. They're just funny. But at the same time, you don't feel that there is any wasted dialogue.”
“The plot doesn't do much,” agrees Alex Matthews, a producer and director at UCSD's Calit2 (California Institute for Telecommunications Information Technology). “It's the characters that propel the film.”
Like, say, the Dude and Walter, who are immortalized as “action” figures on his work desk? Matthews discovered the film a few years ago, when was doing lighting at a concert and the band wanted to screen the Jesus bowling scene as an intro to their set. Now an Achiever with a couple of Los Angeles Lebowski Fests under his belt, Matthews even wrote a college term paper about the film.
“The Coen Brothers followed their shooting script to the letter,” he explains. “They even knew what actors they wanted to use.”
Perhaps it's the Coens' directorial attention to quirky detail that makes their film the kind of cult classic that causes otherwise ordinary people to rave and rant.
“I hate when people quote the movie while watching it,” says Sean Kelley. “It makes me throw up in my mouth and want to murder people.”
Kelley, who helms the San Diego art collective SET + DRIFT, is only half-joking. “I was kind of obsessed with ‘The Big Lebow' for a while in college,” he explains. “Junior year, my nightly routine most weekdays would be to drink a 40 of Steel Reserve and watch Lebowski. I really overdosed. I can't really watch it anymore, or at least I haven't tried in a while because I became immune to it.”
For Kelley and his college pals, the movie made an unusually good drinking game: Pound one every time a character says “fuck.” Seen the film? Then you know how drunk that would make you. And if you haven't, just check out “The Big Lebowski Fucking Short Version” on YouTube to see every f-bomb edited into a two-minute montage (there's 280 of them, beating out even the fuck-happy Scarface).
During his Lebowski heyday, Kelley, who is 6-foot-8, donned a robe, slippers and shades at the bowling alley one Halloween. “I was the tallest Dude ever,” he laughs.
But costumes like that will hardly impress the hardcore fans who do their best to win the festival's surreal costume contests. Get-ups range from the banal to the eyebrow-raising original. Russell, the festival co-founder, sounds slightly awestruck when he remembers one particular entry.
“A few years ago, a guy came to the festival in Louisville. He wasn't dressed in costume, but in his hand he had a Folgers can with the cremated remains of his uncle, who had specified before he went that he wanted to be put in a Folgers can and entered into the contest as Donnie's ashes.”
The truly amazing thing? The ashes didn't win. Another guy came ensconced in a huge globe—it wouldn't even fit through the bowling alley doors—with a hammer hitting his head all night. Can you guess? He was a “World of Pain,” one of John Goodman's most memorable quotes from the movie.
“I guess it's hard to convey to a rowdy audience the gravity of human remains,” sighs Russell in an amused Southern drawl. “But Uncle Charlie was a close second.”