The Big Lebowski: Hey Dude
Thousands of fans will congregate in Edinburgh next week to celebrate the Coen brothers' cult anti-hero, the Dude. Lebowski Festival organiser Will Russell explains why we all love a loser
Later this month in Edinburgh, legions of people will don their bathrobes, drink White Russians and go ten-pin bowling to pay homage to a man who calls himself "the Dude". In spite of how this might sound, the Dude is not a crazed cult leader; in fact, he's not even real. He is the central character in the 1998 Coen brothers' comedy The Big Lebowski.
If you have never heard of this movie, you are not alone. The film bombed at the box office and was dismissed by critics and most of the movie-going public as a forgettable mess. This mess, however, is well on its way to becoming the first cult film of the internet era. In the past five years alone, The Big Lebowski has spawned a legion of fans, a travelling festival that has packed bowling alleys across the US, and a book that has been published in multiple countries.
The movie is set in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The Dude, played flawlessly by Jeff Bridges, is an unemployed, ageing hippie and former political activist whose only ambition now seems to be to have enough change to buy a fresh carton of milk for his White Russians. In the midst of America's consumer culture, the Dude finds his happiness in simple pleasures like bowling with his buddies. By most accounts, his slacker lifestyle would put him in the loser category. Yet thousands consider the Dude to be a heroic figure. In a time of war and strife, much of which can be attributed to the unchecked greed and power of world leaders, the Dude is a breath of fresh air.
In The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers offer an inspired twist on noir films such as The Big Sleep by replacing the sure-footed, hard-nosed detective with a fumbling, lovable stoner. The plot boils down to the Dude, whose real name is Jeffrey Lebowski, being mistaken for a millionaire who shares his name. Madness ensues when two thugs come to collect a debt from the rich Lebowski and proceed to pee on the Dude's rug. The Dude's hot-headed buddy, Walter (John Goodman), comes up with the idea of approaching the millionaire Lebowski to ask for compensation for the soiled rug.
The Dude then finds himself caught up in a series of events that involves him mixing with (or fleeing from) kidnappers, nihilists, trophy wives, hired heavies, avant-garde artists, hard-assed cops and his bowling nemesis. All the while drinking White Russians and smoking weed. But the plot is, as Joel Coen said in a rare interview with indieWIRE, "ultimately unimportant". It is merely the backdrop to what some say is the most quotable dialogue in film history.
Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films for more than 20 years. While trying to secure distribution for their first film, Blood Simple, in 1984, the Coens befriended indie film champion Jeff Dowd. Dowd, who was a political activist in the Seventies, actually calls himself "the Dude" and is one of the inspirations for the film.
While all of the minor performances are brilliant in their own way - Goodman as the Vietnam vet Walter, Steve Buscemi as the Dude's put-upon friend Donny, Julianne Moore as the Dude's love interest (of sorts), and John Turturro as the flamboyant pederast who calls himself "the Jesus" - the standout performance comes from Bridges. Despite his four Oscar nominations, including for his first performance in a leading role in The Last Picture Show in 1971, the Dude may be Bridges' most memorable role.
The Dude represents the counter-culture of America. His refusal to kowtow to the rich Lebowski is a refusal to kowtow to the entire power structure of corporate conglomerates and diabolically corrupt politicians. Fans admire The Dude's conviction and ability to remain true to himself no matter who he's dealing with. As one character puts it, "It's good knowin' he's out there, the Dude, takin' 'it easy for all us sinners."
In the same way, the film's failure at the box office is a big part of its appeal. Danny Peary, author of the 1981 book Cult Movies, explains: "Cult films are born in controversy... Cultists believe they are among the blessed few who have discovered something in particular films that the average moviegoer and critic have missed - the something that makes the pictures extraordinary."
The Big Lebowski was released in the midst of the dotcom boom of the late Nineties when internet usage was becoming more prevalent. Suddenly, people who would otherwise have never met could connect with the click of a mouse. This instant connectivity has been the main catalyst for the growth of the cult of Lebowski. The number one comment submitted through LebowskiFest. com is: "I'm so happy to find others like me!"
This delight at not being alone is how Lebowski Fest was born. My friend, Scott Shuffitt, and I were bored out of our minds selling T-shirts at a tattoo convention and quoting Lebowski lines to pass the time. Suddenly, a voice that did not belong to us joined in and started quoting the sacred script. In the middle of a barrage of Lebowski quotes, inspiration struck.
If they could hold this ridiculous tattoo convention, why couldn't we hold a ridiculous Big Lebowski convention? We rented the cheapest bowling alley we could find in our hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, gathered some dusty bowling trophies and set out to have a party for what we thought would be 20 or so of our friends. More than 150 people showed up.
LebowskiFest.com was created later that year in December 2002. Word of mouth in the form of emails and posts on discussion forums began to spread the news that there was a place to celebrate a love of all things Lebowski. In 2003, SPIN magazine listed Lebowski Fest as one of the summer's must-attend events and the festival was no longer Kentucky's little secret.
Some 1,200 fans from 35 US states flocked to Louisville that July to bowl in the name of Lebowski and meet the inspiration for the film's main character, Jeff Dowd. He was worried that it was going to be some nerdy convention but was pleasantly surprised to meet a great group of people who are, as he says, "better drinkers than they are bowlers". Lebowski Fest has since held sold-out events all across the United States, and is now heading to the UK for the first time.
People of all ages and backgrounds attend Lebowski Fests: lawyers and doctors, teachers and parents, slackers and stoners, Vietnam vets and judges, college kids and nerds. Everyone getting along, bowling and quoting lines. These are people who are smart enough to appreciate the Coen brothers' sense of irony, but silly enough to enjoy their absurdist humor.
The film screenings at Lebowski Fest are not your typical night out at the movies. Thousands of fans get together, drink White Russians, laugh, and shout out their favorite dialogue. After the screening, it's on to the tenpin bowling alley. Many people dress up as characters from the film - the Dude in his bathrobe, Walter in his sharp-shooter glasses, Maude in her Valkyrie outfit and the Jesus in his purple jumpsuit and hairnet. Nihilists run amok from one end of the bowling alley to another. The Stranger can be seen ambling through the crowd with his ten-gallon hat leading the way.
Many people ask why, of all the films that have been made, The Big Lebowski has its own travelling festival. Well, Citizen Kane is often hailed as the greatest film of all time, but I don't imagine that a Kane Fest would be any fun at all. The Big Lebowski has a good deal of tenpin bowling in it and tenpin bowling is fun. Not to mention the therapeutic value of having a few White Russians. Much like the rug in the Dude's apartment, tenpin bowling really ties the Fest together. Hope to see you out on the lanes.
Will Russell is co-author of 'I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski', Canongate Books, £12.99; Lebowski Fest is coming to Edinburgh on 24 August and London on 30 August (http://lebowskifest.com)