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'Lebowski Fest': It's cult culture

Eight hundred fans of the noirish, L.A.-based Coen brothers film descend on Louisville -- yes, Louisville -- to share the joy of their bizarre obsession.

July 23, 2003|Michael Soller | Special to The Times

Louisville, Ky. — Louisville, Ky.

Like "Chinatown" or "Magnolia," movies that reveal Los Angeles to itself, "The Big Lebowski" is required viewing for local scenesters. So where would you expect to find the second annual "Lebowski Fest," a multiform celebration of the 1998 Coen brothers film? At the AMF Rose Bowl here in Louisville.

More than 800 people showed up Saturday night for unlimited bowling, $3 White Russians and rowdy but good-mannered fun. Nearly three-quarters of them came from out of town, many in cars with "Lebowski 7:19" painted on the windows, a reverential reference to the event's date. A Brown University parking pass dangled from one rearview mirror. A large SUV with a "Sobchak Security" sign on its door disgorged a flat-topped Virginian. All testament to Walter Sobchak, the film's angry center (played by John Goodman), who says, cryptically: "If you will it, it is no dream."

Larry Brantley and his son, Walter, drove up from Atlanta. The balding elder Brantley was dressed as the film's title character, a conniving millionaire, complete with blue blazer and motorized wheelchair. The chair was his mother-in-law's, and Brantley, who later that night would win the costume contest, had practiced with it for more than a month. "We try not to hit anyone," he said, maneuvering elegantly through the crowd to pose for pictures.

Also in training for months was a group of local youths who planned to win every contest. Jordan Fautz in fact won the "ringer toss," in which a valise of dirty underwear is thrown from a pea-green Plymouth Fury, and they had their own ringer, Neil Thornberry, who studied the DVD "frame by frame" in preparation for the trivia contest. "I was kind of disappointed to see that it was multiple choice," said Thornberry, who had a bowling score of 8 after three frames. Two hours later, Thornberry learned he hadn't made the second round. "I know I got them all right," he said. "I'm certain."

By then, Rachel Salansky, a bicycle lamp blinking on her horned helmet, had long given up the goal. She was happy, she said dreamily, "as long as I'm here and I'm bowling."

How did a scabrous film with lukewarm reviews become a beloved subcultural text? A recent top-50 list of "cult movies" put "The Big Lebowski" in 34th place, far below "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Un Chien Andalou." References to pedophilia and nihilism and off-color barbs at the disabled, the Chinese and America's military opponents in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars; the F-word and its variants appear either 267 or 262 times, depending on whom you ask.

In the movie, mistaken identity leads to blackmail and extortion. As Jeff Bridges' Dude explains: "I'm not Mr. Lebowski, you're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me." The Dude is a former member of the "Seattle Seven" who has traded New Left politics for a life of "strikes and gutters, ups and downs." His bowling partner is Sobchak, a Vietnam veteran with a violent streak. The movie is set a few months before the 1991 Gulf War, and then-President George Bush's caution that "this aggression will not stand" is one of many lines that loop through the dialogue, a running commentary on greed, loss and moral limits.

Will Russell, who organized the Lebowski Fest with friend Scott Shuffitt, didn't see that at first. "I was indifferent to it; I didn't get it," he said. "I made the mistake of looking for a plot." The third time, he got it.

Russell, a Web-page designer, and Shuffitt, who owned a local clothing store, played together in the band Blue Goat War, and after practice, Shuffitt said, "The Big Lebowski" was a running theme. Soon Shuffitt invited Russell to man the store's booth at area festivals. A little "punch drunk" after a long day at a tattoo convention, they started shooting lines at other sellers, who shot them back. The Lebowski Fest was born.

Last year's drew 150. It was held at the Baptist-owned Fellowship Lanes, where a sign explained the rules: no drinking, no cussing. "You could smoke the hell out of some cigarettes, though," said Russell.

Even with drinking and cussing, the capacity crowd that overwhelmed the AMF Rose Bowl staff was well-behaved. At the end of the night, Carl Wiggins, the manager, was ecstatic. It was the "best single night in the bar ever. I never saw so many white Russians in my life," he said, referring to the film's signature drink, a blend of Kahlua, vodka and half-and-half (or Coffee-mate) that his staff had been making in pitchers. Bowling was included in the entry price, but even so, he was impressed: 1,098 games bowled, 30 per lane.

Despite its cult status, "The Big Lebowski" is a fairly straightforward variation on classic L.A. film noir. Bridges' stumbly-mumbly Dude is a dissipated version of Elliott Gould's cat-friendly bachelor in "The Long Goodbye," Robert Altman's 1973 version of the Raymond Chandler novel, and of Humphrey Bogart's wisecracking Philip Marlowe of the 1940s.

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