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A confederacy of Dudes

The Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski has attracted a cult following of fans who gather at Lebowski Fests to bowl, drink White Russians and abide by "the Dude."

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published April 10, 2005

LOS ANGELES - Dan Prall is a drop-dead ringer for actor John Goodman.

But a guy whose T-shirt bears the word "Achiever" swears Prall is the spitting image of Walter Sobchak.

Goodman is known to millions for his hit movies and television roles. Sobchak is a fictional character played by Goodman in a movie that pretty much flopped when it came out in 1998, The Big Lebowski.

From his dyed hair to his combat boots, Prall, a 64-year-old Dallas resident, is decked out as Sobchak, a belligerent Vietnam veteran whose gung-ho attitude is a catalyst for the film's comic-noir detective story.

"Man, I thought you were the real Walter when I saw you," the awe-struckAchiever tells Prall.

Not the real John Goodman; the real Walter Sobchak.

"Say: "Pomeranian,' " he urges Prall, who obliges, sounding eerily like the actor saying the word as Sobchak, who took a dog of that breed along on a bowling expedition in Joel and Ethan Coen's film.

"You look just like him, dude," the Achiever concludes. Prall thanks him, adding: "That's why I'm here, to win Best Walter."

"Here" is the sixth semiregular gathering of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, who take their name from the fictional children's charity figuring into the film's plot. "Achiever" has become the preferred nomenclature of the thousands worldwide who have formed a cult fan base around the film and its slacker heroes. They know the screenplay by heart, quoting its lines conversationally as they gather at rowdy conventions known as Lebowski Fests that originated in Louisville, Ky., and spread to New York and Las Vegas.

This particular Fest, held over Good Friday weekend, is historic for Achievers; the first in Los Angeles, where the film pits Walter and the stoner extraordinaire Dude, (played by Jeff Bridges) against a Chandleresque conspiracy of shady philanthropists, porno filmmakers and castrating Nihilists, while still allowing plenty of time for league bowling.

Exactly the tradition that Lebowski Fest is designed to carry on.

Achievers from as far as Ecuador turned the City of Angels into a fantasy weekend for those whose fantasies match the Dude's laid-back philosophy. Music is a necessity, but the Eagles, whom the Dude cannot abide, are booed. Altered consciousness is preferred, although apart from a few whiffs of marijuana in the air, White Russians - the Dude's other favorite vice - are the buzz of choice.

And that's just the first night at the Knitting Factory nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard, a half-block away from Bridges' star on the Walk of Fame. The Good Friday gathering got even better for more than 800 Achievers when the Dude himself arrived.

To paraphrase the Coens' perpetually profane script: New (stuff) will come to light about that later.

On Saturday, Lebowski Fest moved 30 miles south to Long Beach's Cal Bowl, a 68-lane nirvana for 1,000 Dude disciples, who rolled 1,163 games by midnight.

Many, such as Prall, dressed as key characters. Others dreamed up costumes such as a carton of half and half (for Dude's White Russians), with a "Missing" ad for kidnapped trophy wife Bunny Lebowski. Keeping the cocktail theme going, another Achiever wore a sandwich board painted like a Kahlua bottle. One woman posed as "Mrs. Jamtoss," a name that appears for a split second on the homework assignment of a teenager whom Walter bullies.

It's that kind of detail that makes these fans Achievers.

* * *

Why The Big Lebowski? The movie grossed only $17.4-million in U.S. theaters on its March 1998 release, barely more than its reported $15-million budget. Reviews were generally positive, including an A grade in the St. Petersburg Times. But the Coens' R-rated movie, which defied ad-copy description, quietly slipped away like many unusual films do.

Mainstream audiences couldn't draw a bead on a movie about a slacker who happened to share the surname of a tycoon - the big Lebowski of the title - whose embezzling scheme leads to encounters with Los Angeles' seamier denizens. The humor is too dense to soak up in one viewing, the serpentine plot too complex for casual moviegoers.

It has joined films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Harold & Maude and Scarface that were initially bypassed but then resurrected through a kind of communal will by a particular audience. Home video started the ball rolling for The Big Lebowski. Then came word of mouth as repeat viewers discovered others who shared their affection, setting themselves apart from non-Achievers, the way Trekkies or Hobbit freaks find superiority in numbers.

Scarface wouldn't be hip today, if gangsta rap culture hadn't flourished. The Big Lebowski's relevance is more political; it's set in 1991, during another Persian Gulf war featuring Saddam Hussein hunted by another President Bush. One jarring, though clearly coincidental detail: the date on a personal check the Dude writes for half-and-half at a supermarket in the opening scene: Sept. 11.

Achievers such as Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt thrive on those kinds of details.

Russell and Shuffitt were playing in a "sci-fi concept band" called Blue Goat War in Louisville when their mutual interest in Lebowski dialogue became an in-joke at rehearsals. Shuffitt ran a small clothing outlet and asked Russell, a computer program designer, to help sell shirts at a 2002 tattoo festival. Business was slow, so Lebowski jokes filled time.

"These people in the next booth joined in, started quoting lines with us," says Russell, 28. "We had this instant bonding going on. It turned a pretty boring thing into a lot of fun.

"So, I'm looking at this tattoo convention, telling Scott: "I don't know what's going on here. I just don't get it. The highlight is people hanging by their a- piercings.

"If they can have a tattoo convention, why can't we have a Big Lebowski convention?' "

In October 2002, Russell and Shuffitt rented a Baptist bowling establishment that frowned upon alcohol and profanity, but it was cheap. They guessed that 30 close friends might attend. They wound up with nearly 150 budding Achievers, including visitors from Buffalo and Tucson, Ariz., who picked up information through a small Web site designed by Russell.

E-mail response from other Big Lebowski enthusiasts led to a second Lebowski Fest in July 2003. An invitation was extended to independent film adviser Jeff Dowd, a friend of the Coens who inspired the Dude character. He accepted, lending minor credibility to the event. Spin magazine caught wind of Lebowski Fest II and deemed it one of the coolest vacation stops for the summer.

"Our love of this movie convinced us to start this party in a bowling alley," says Russell, shaking his head. "Then it blew up, took off and now it's this."

Russell's ears perk up, and he asks to be excused. There's something going on in the Knitting Factory's main room that he must see.

Onstage is the Dude himself, a.k.a. Jeffrey Lebowski.

(For you under-Achievers, that would be Jeff Bridges.)

The actor and occasional musician is doing a sound check, performing Bob Dylan's The Man in Me from the film's soundtrack. Russell looks ready to burst into joyful tears. Only a few Achievers sworn to secrecy know Bridges is appearing tonight. It's as if William Shatner showed up at a Star Trek convention and could actually sing.

Bridges has been a distant friend of the festival, linking to the Lebowski Fest site (www.lebowskifest.com) from his eccentric personal Web page www.jeffbridges.com and autographing bowling pins for auction. He designed a special shirt for the L.A. festival, sold to benefit his End Hunger Network charity.

But playing a 30-minute music set and introducing a late-night screening of The Big Lebowski is entirely new.

The actor says he'd do it even without a guitar.

"I would because I'm so damn pleased and curious about what these festivals are like," he says later backstage. "Lebowski is one of my favorite movies that I've been involved with."

But even he can only theorize why The Big Lebowski has attracted such a cult following.

"Maybe it's because it didn't do well (at the box office) when it came out," he says. "That's really the best way to see a movie; if you know little about it, and you think that only you have discovered it. It's personally yours. And the more viewings of it, the more you see in it. It really holds up that way."

Bridges thinks a bit and laughs: "Maybe it's what the Stranger, Sam Elliott's character, says at the end of the movie. I can't remember the exact lines, but I think the Stranger has the answer you're looking for."

In the film's final shot, after Dude and Walter have solved Bunny's kidnapping, vanquished the Nihilists, bid goodbye to an unexpectedly departed friend, and made the semifinals of the bowling tournament, the Stranger, our cowboy narrator, drawls:

"The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowing he's out there, the Dude, taking it easy for all us sinners."

* * *

The sinners aren't taking it easy at Lebowski Fest. The Knitting Factory crowd erupts, as expected, when Bridges is introduced. Opening acts include Big Lebowski co-star Peter Stormare's band Blonde from Fargo (a nod to another Coen brothers film role he played), and three of Russell and Shuffitt's Louisville buddies creating the Teutonic techno-pop of Autobahn, a band spoken of but never heard in the movie.

Otherwise obscure supporting actors Lu Elrod (the coffeehouse waitress berated by Walter) and Jack Kehler (Dude's interpretive dancing landlord) are treated like Hollywood royalty. Dowd makes another Lebowski Fest appearance, basking in the attention and living up (or down) to his partying image. His friend John Flansburgh, from the offbeat musical group They Might Be Giants, drops by, slightly confused by the Achievers' energetic vibe. The midnight screening starts a half-hour late, so the movie is halted midway through so the bartenders can issue last call.

Nobody minds. They've seen it plenty of times, and besides, this is just the preparty.

The next night at Cal Bowl, drinks are cheaper, lanes are freshly waxed and the costumes and Lebowski trivia buffs are boisterous, as Achievers yearn to achieve more than others. The lanes' general manager, Gary Kowarsch, has never seen 1,000 people inside his place before. He has severely underestimated the amount of milk - a cheaper substitute for half-and-half - required for this many White Russians.

By 10 p.m., the cow has run dry. An employee goes next door to Ralph's supermarket - coincidentally the Dude's preferred chain - to replenish the supply.

Cal Bowl is so crowded that you can't kick a 16-pound bowling ball without it hitting somebody. Two video teams are collecting footage for separate documentaries on the Lebowski cult. Bridges and Stormare are absent, but the titular tycoon, the Big Lebowski himself, actor David Huddleston (Blazing Saddles) is here, and he's feeling feisty.

"I've got news for you," Huddleston growls into a microphone, quoting his movie character, "the bums always lose!" The bums, in this case, cheer.

Two bowlers manage to break 200 amid this commotion, earning deep respect from other Achievers. Mike Merrigan of Dover, N.H., makes good on his loud boast to win the trivia contest, sealing victory by computing an equation: The number of bells on the big Lebowski's desk times two, plus the number of episodes of the 1960's TV show Branded supposedly written by the side character Arthur Digby Sellers (Walter is a big fan), minus the number of lanes at Hollywood Star Lanes, the bowling establishment where the film was shot, now demolished.

Merrigan nails the answer (128) with astounding speed.

The costume contests are much closer. Best overall costume goes to a quartet of friends wearing L.A.P.D. forensics smocks, a reference to the "boys down at the crime lab" mentioned by a sarcastic cop when the Dude's car is stolen. The half-and-half carton comes in second place. The Best Dude winner is the guy who draws inspiration from the film's dream sequence set in a bowling-porn movie. The Best Jesus Quintana - based on John Turturro's scene-stealing role as an annoying bowling rival - might make Turturro gasp.

And Prall is declared Best Walter, drawing the loudest applause of the night.

Away from the hubbub, Achiever Derek Shackleton is on one knee, proposing marriage to his girlfriend, Faeren Adams. Both teach English in Ecuador.

"The Big Lebowski is something we've had a lot of fun enjoying together," he says. "The ring's been sitting in my pocket for about three months. This is the time, and it's right."

Adams dreamily gazes at her new ring and fiance: "I think it's perfect. This makes it doubly romantic, even triply, a million times."

No wedding date is set yet. "The Dude wouldn't have it all planned out, either," says Shackleton.

By 12:30 a.m., the crowd starts thinning. One of the first to leave is Huddleston, 75, who's visibly exhausted by the late hour and all this Achiever attention.

"That's the most fun I've had in a long time," he says, with a grin that his stern Big Lebowski character would never display. "It's chaos. These people are crazy. You know, they're all bums and the bums usually lose. This time they won."

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