Tuesday, October 23, 2007

ONE FOR THE ACHIEVERS: THE BIG LEBOWSKI CULT


“To some, The Big Lebowski is just a movie. To others it is the movie. When we decided to get some friends together at a tiny bowling alley in Kentucky to drink White Russians and celebrate our favorite movie, Lebowski fest was born. We discovered we were not alone, and fellow fans from around the world, also known as ‘Achievers,’ started coming out of the woodwork.

We, the Bums who started Lebowski Fest, have been given the modest task of assembling a fan book for what we feel is the greatest movie of all time (condolences, Citizen Kane). At times, we felt we were out of our element, but we went out and achieved anyway.”

-- The Bums, from the front inside jacket flap of I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski


Most everyone who has come to hold the Coen Brothers’ comedy The Big Lebowski dear has a story about their first encounter with the movie. No matter who’s telling it, it’s basically the same story, a fable of initial reluctance or confusion, topped off by a dawning realization of the movie’s brilliance. And this story gets told many times in the new fan book I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, written—nah, compiled by the Bums, a.k.a. Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, the originators of Lebowski Fest. This is a book that proudly contains everything you need to know about the movie, as well as much you didn’t need to know about how to incorporate dialogue from the film into just about 50% of your everyday utterances. (The book's own Dialogue Incorporation Percentage hovers at about 78%.) The story of my first Lebowski experience, which is echoed often in the chapter devoted to some of the movie’s most rabid fans (comedian/actor Patton Oswalt, animator Craig McCracken, skateboarder Tony Hawk among many others), goes something like this.

The wife and I, looking for a hearty laugh back on the weekend of the movie’s initial theatrical release (March 6, 1998), decided to check the movie out based on some pretty good reviews we had read (though reports out of Sundance a couple of months earlier were decidedly mixed). We enjoyed it, and one of the things we most enjoyed was the apparent perversity of Joel and Ethan Coen following up the chilly, Oscar-winning black comedy of Fargo, what everyone supposed would be their ticket to big-time Hollywood respectability, with a comedy that seemed almost tossed-off in its casualness, a movie as underachieving, scrappy and shaggy as its antihero, Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski. As for the movie itself, the operative word seemed to be “odd,” not in any grossly self-conscious way, but in a way that seemed perplexing, almost in-jokey.

Over the course of the next year we kept running into people who kept insisting (in a non-aggressive way, man) on the undeniable hilarity of The Big Lebowski, and I kept repeating that, though I liked it, it seemed like kind of a minor effort. Then, sometime in 1999, the wife and I rented it just to see if we’d missed something in the theater. Apparently we had. We both watched the movie through tears of laughter, appreciating the subtlety within the over-the-top comic histrionics of John Goodman as Walter, the abiding core of humor within Jeff Bridges’ infinitely empathetic and put-upon Dude, the far-reaching excellence of the supporting cast, the deliberately confusing plot that parodies Raymond Chandler through a prism of deadbeat philosophizing and generational ideals left dangling like the strands of plot that lead nowhere, even the playfully mocking vision of Los Angeles as a city where a lone tumbleweed can survive, much like the Dude survives, just by taking a tour wherever the winds take it/him, an oddly comforting thought on a night when many of the places the movie shows us are literally on fire. Suddenly The Big Lebowski made sense, and it wasn’t long before we began urging friends and coworkers to join the club. Since then I’ve made lots of friends, mostly in traffic, and most memorably at a Dutch Bros. coffee shop drive-thru in Salem, Oregon last summer, when fellow Achievers working inside noticed the bumper sticker on my minivan, which says simply “Mark it 8, Dude,” and responded with near-Pentecostal enthusiasm.

A book like I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, one that attempts to capture the essence, and offer explanations for the cult phenomenon surrounding a film, can often be one of the first signs that the cult, or at least its freshness, has jumped the shark, and this book doesn't entirely avoid that pitfall. Naturally, it’s not a book of criticism—it’s a fan book, with sections on How to Dude-ify your Office Space or Living Space that are pretty amusing, more so the more familiar you are with the film. And the large section of the book devoted to interviews with the actors—everyone from Jeff Bridges down to Jim Hoosier (Liam, the Jesus’ bowling partner), Asia Carrera (premier porn star who has a cameo in the Jackie Treehorn production Logjammin’) and Jack Kehler (Marty, the Dude’s artistically aspiring landlord)—is great fun, hampered only by the Bums’ lack of interviewing finesse. They are obviously operating off of the same set of index cards for every interviewee, so at some point everyone gets asked some variation on “How do you explain this movie’s success or its devoted fan base?” or “How did you get involved with the movie?” or “What is it about the movie that resonates with people?” These are not uninteresting questions, just questions that needed to be mixed up a bit more with something more derived from left field.


The best stuff comes when the Bums get out of the way of the likes of John Turturro, who earnestly describes his idea for a sequel based on his character, the sex offender and bowler extraordinaire Jesus Quintana, or Goodman, who leads the book into a hilarious description of how some of the movie’s famously profane dialogue ended up sounding on basic cable (“So you see what happens, Larry, when you find a stranger in the Alps?!”) For their part, the Coens, no strangers to refusing to participate in the interpretation, analysis or exegesis of their own work, sidestepped any participation in the book. “They have neither our blessing nor our curse” is the one quote in the book attributed to them, as much as an out-and-out endorsement as the fan authors could have ever hoped for.

There is an excellent short section in the book devoted to the story of the development of the movie from box-office disappointment to grass-roots phenomenon (“Are We Alone, or How The Big Lebowski Became a Cult Classic”) as well as a look at the origins of the Lebowski Fest itself (“If You Will It, Dude, It Is No Dream”). (This year’s L.A. Lebowski Fest was held on October 12 & 13. Here’s a look at last year’s, which I attended.) And for the obsessive completist, there is a glossary of Lebowski terminology ("In the Parlance of Our Times"), a guide to the various Los Angeles-area locations seen in the film, and even a handy reference section (“Your side guide to watching The Big Lebowski”) with significant moments, oddities and trivial bits linked to the hour, minute and second where the event appears on the original Polygram DVD release. (“For those of you on the Universal DVD, please add 20 seconds,” offer our very thurra* hosts.)

But, as an unabashed fan of the movie, the nagging feeling I was left with after finishing I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski was one of possible overexposure. It is undeniably amusing to read about other people whose fanatical devotion to the movie far outstrips my own. Yet I closed the back cover wanting either more in terms of actual writing and thought about what’s happening in the movie, or to have been left alone with my own perceptions, about the movie and the cult. In this way, the Coens reticence to offer DVD audio commentary or any kind of ascension to the various theories floating around about their work, this film included, can be seen as the ultimate respect for fans of their movies—they are willing to let us do all the heavy lifting when it comes to assessing what those movies mean to us. And certainly Mssrs. Green, Peskoe, Russell and Shuffitt have come up with an answer to what The Big Lebowski means to them, an answer that will likely be shared by hordes of White Russian-drinking, robe-wearing, carpet-obsessed cultists who will eat up their book even faster than I did.

In the end, however, I cannot help but sympathize with freelance journalist and uber-fan Oliver Benjamin, whose greatest Achievement is the founding of a faith based on the tenets of Dude-ism, “the world’s slowest-growing religion.” Benjamin, currently takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is a self-described male version of Maude Lebowski, the pretentious, marginal artist played by Julianne Moore in the film (* whose affected accent has her pronouncing words like “thorough” in the exacting and extremely precious manner referenced above). And though Benjamin is an unapologetic fan of the movie (he’s seen it about 15 times), he admits, “I try not to watch it too often, as I’m terrified one day I’ll finally get sick of it.” I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski is a lot of fun, but afterward you may feel like taking a sabbatical from the film in the name of preserving the freshness of your own experience with it. It made me remind myself of the greatness at the other end of the Coen Brothers spectrum, their rather more straightforward, though even more complicated, shot at noir, the Dashiell Hammett-inflected Miller’s Crossing, and want to go running straight into its trenchcoated arms. Am I wrong?

29 comments:

Sal said...

"They're gonna kill that poor woman, man!"

You should have everyone submit their favorite quote just to see how many we can come up with and how man we may have overlooked.

Undeniably, even though I had seen this film before I do owe you some gratitude for opening my eyes to some of the subtle details of this film.

Jonathan Lapper said...

No, Walter, it did not look like Larry was about to crack!

Following Sal's lead I think each comment on this post should start with a quote. My experience with this film almost exactly follows yours. I haven't watched it often because I truly do fear I will grow tired of it and I don't want that to happen.

And my favorite scenes change daily. Just now thinking about the movie I couldn't stop thinking about the goddamn homework scene (hence the quote above). I swear there are times when I really do believe that John Goodman gives the most adept and dead on comic performance of all time in this movie. And although there's no quote involved, I laugh like hell every time I see Walter falling down with the machine gun. This movie is one of a kind - AND it introduced me to Aimee Mann post 'Til Tuesday and I've never regretted that.

bill said...

“Obviously, you’re not a golfer.”
“You think the carpet-pissers did this?”
“Eight year-olds, dude.”
“Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it was an ethos.”
“So, racially he’s pretty cool?”

And so on. I think it's kind of fascinating that seemingly everyone who loves "The Big Lebowski" had to watch it at least twice before they truly appreciated it. That was pretty much my experience. When I saw it in the theater, I laughed myself stupid for about two-thirds of the film, before feeling that it lost steam. I guess I still kind of feel that way, though I no longer really care.

But I haven't watched it in years, and in fact I don't own it on DVD. I just haven't gotten around to picking it up yet. The plus of that being that when I do finally watch it again, I won't be bored with it (at least I hope I won't. My brothers and I did come pretty close to wearing out our various VHS copies. I remember my brother Dan saying that one Saturday he came over to the house where I lived, and I was watching my tape of "The Big Lebowski". Later that day, he went over to visit a couple of my brothers who shared a townhouse about a half hour away, and they had it on, too.)

However, I do agree with you, Dennis, that "Miller's Crossing" is still their masterpiece (with "Barton Fink" coming in a close second). That film was a life-changing experience for me as a movie-goer. It seemed so unusually perfect. Watching it years later, I don't think it's lost an inch.

There's a too-short conversation between Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers at Time.com, and "Miller's Crossing" is mentioned:

MCCARTHY: I don't want to embarrass you, but ["Miller's Crossing"] is a very fine movie.

JOEL COEN: Eh, it's just a damn rip-off.

MCCARTHY: No, I didn't say it wasn't a rip-off. I understand it's a rip-off. I'm just saying it's good.

Here's the rest:
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1673269-2,00.html

Jonathan Lapper said...

I know I'm going to regret this but I think Miller's Crossing is a very good movie, but not great. It is very slick and everything falls into place perfectly and that's great but I leave it feeling I've just watched a coldy perfect exercise in technique more than anything else. I know everyone who comes here will probably disagree with this so I probably should have just kept this to myself but I think Lebowski, Fargo, Barton Fink, & Blood Simple are all better works of theirs.

I do think Miller's Crossing is great fun to watch and again, a very good movie, so please don't misconstrue that I'm trying to take it down or anything. It just seems that out of a lot of great movies to choose from with the Coens that lately, Miller's Crossing has taken on a fanboy's air about it. I know when I read what you, Dennis, or Jim Emerson have to say about it that it is knowledgable, sincere and mixed in with a great knowledge and appreciation for over a century of cinema so I am most definitely not including you or Jim in this following assessment which is this: Miller's Crossing has come to feel like Pulp Fiction to me. It's that really good movie that lots of people who don't know jack about film (and all seem to be under thirty) see and deem to be a great movie because the cleverness of the plotting overwhelms them. Viewing a simple character study from Rohmer or a delicate satire from Renoir would be lost on them because it wouldn't come with the attached bells and whistles that signal to them it is a great movie. And I'm just getting a little tired of people who've seen only a handful of movies from before 1950 (and only the biggest and most famous ones at that) telling me about the greatness of this or Pulp Fiction.

Jonathan Lapper said...

And yes I'm aware that I recently referred to it as a "great" film on Jim Emerson's Scanners. To me that is a colloquial expression (I think it is great to watch and is excellent) so I should quickly redefine what I am saying here that I do not believe it is a "masterpiece."

bill said...

As I seem to have not been excluded in your takedown of "Miller's Crossing" fans, allow me to be defensive: aren't you making a lot of assumptions about why fans of this particular movie like it? And aren't you doing so while acknowledging that it's possible to like it for the "right" reasons?

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill,
I excluded you only because I cannot read anything you have written on movies like Jim and Dennis but based on what I have seen of your opinion here (when we are not kidding each other) I would include you with Jim and Dennis as well.

And yes, I am absolutely making assumptions and those assumptions are based on the observable behavior of fanboys I have come in contact with. Obviously you can like it for the right reasons (as Jim, Dennis and you do) and I can't say this enough - I think it is quite well done, but the reactions I get are that it is a masterpiece with which I do not agree.

I probably shouldn't have gone into the fanboy area but I'm hoping someone out there knows what I'm talking about with that reference. There is a certain type of film that always seems to include crime, violence or gangsterism that will make the fanboy exalt it over all else. With Tarantino movies you get that quite a lot and this would be the only Coen brothers movie where it happens but it does happen with it. I have had conversations with fanboys where the dialogue contained such analytical wonderments as "Oh man that fucking movie is so cool." "When Tom blows him away in the end and says, 'What heart?', oh shit man that just rocks." and so on. That's what I get tired of BUT I WILL MAKE IT CLEAR RIGHT NOW THAT NONE OF THESE IDIOTS EVER COME HERE so I'll drop the fanboy thing.

My main point that I poorly made was that I feel the Coen brothers hearts just weren't in this. It feels like an exercise in plotting, not a masterful work of art. So forget the fanboy thing and please don't think I don't value the opinion of any of the regular commenters here on SLIFR, least of all you Bill. I've joked in the past that you should start a blog (when I said you could review The Entity) but it was only a half-joke. I really do think you have a perceptive eye with film and you would be a welcome voice in the community.

bill said...

Oh, heck! How can I stay mad at you!?

Really, thank you for the very kind words, and I hope I didn't force you into that by my probably overly defensive post. But I've always been defensive and protective of the Coen brothers, because they were probably the first modern filmmakers I encountered during my maturation as a film lover who really jolted and excited me, and they did that first with "Miller's Crossing".

However, I do absolutely know what you're talking about, regarding a certain type of person and their reaction to crime films. I love the genre both in film and in literature, and it turns my stomach when I hear people slobber all over something like "The Boondock Saints" (a worse crime film I can't imagine).

But "Miller's Crossing" is something else altogether. For one thing, while "The Boondock Saints" is drawing off Tarantino (who I also like a lot, but I admit "Pulp Fiction" shows its age a bit -- "Jackie Brown" is far superior) and not even doing that well, "Miller's Crossing" is drawing of the real shit, Dashiell Hammett. It may be an unofficial adaptation of his "Red Harvest" and "The Glass Key", but it is the best and most faithful in spirit attempt to bring his writing to the screen ouside of "The Maltese Falcon". Not only that, has anyone ever portrayed a big city during the Depression that feels as authentic and is as visually stunning as the Coens do here? Not that I've seen.

I just love it so very much. It's funny and exciting and moving and even a little horrifying ("Always put one in the brain!"). I could go on, and I could even get a little corny about it, but I won't. Suffice it to say, it is one of my favorite films of all time.

Sorry again if I sounded snappy before. The fact that I haven't, you know, written anything about the movie ever should have clued me in that it wasn't personal.

Anonymous said...

"Chinaman is not the prefered nomenclature. It's Asian American."

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'll tell you what, I haven't seen it in a few years (although I have seen it a total of three times) and it has always left me cold but impressed. I'll watch it again soon. Before you think that sounds pointless let me just say that I have had movies that took me three to five viewings to come around to. This could be yet another.

And no you didn't force me to say those things although it did feel a bit odd getting into a tussle with the Bill I so often joke with. Personally I think you were just annoyed because I took your designated spot as The Contrarian of Sergio Leone, ala Dazed and Confused.

bill said...

Hey, yeah, what's up with that? No wonder my rebellious, against-the-grain opinion of "The Bride of Frankenstein" (see above) felt so limp and hollow when I wrote it. You took my gig!

aaron said...

"Well, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."

Jonathan Lapper said...

I shall deal with The Bride of Frankenstein later...

until then...

Come on, man. I had a rough night and I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man!

bill said...

"I lost my legs, sir. A Chinaman took them from me in Korea."

Also, Jonathan, do you not have comments open at your site? I was going to comment on your "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" post and, in the insterest of friendship, completely ignore your post about religion, but when I went to comment on the former I saw nothing to guide me.

bill said...

"I didn't blame anyone for the loss of my legs. Some Chinaman took them from me in Korea."

I knew I had the line wrong. Aren't you supposed to be able to delete posts here?

Jonathan Lapper said...

Comments are always open at my site you weird religious whack job, uh... I mean, Bill. (Just kidding). At the bottom of each post you'll see them. Look for "Comments 9" at the bottom of the Henry post. Once you post it shall say "comments 10." Then I shall immediately ban your i.p. address. (Kidding again).

But hey, what's up with the religion thing? I was going off about the Jesus campers not religion in general. I even make reference to the churches unlike theirs as the "non-crazy" ones. I am no fan of organized religion but I try to keep the bile reserved for Fred Phelps/Dominionist types, not your average Methodist.

bill said...

I admit, I just sort of skimmed your "Jesus Camp" post. But you said something like "'Jesus Camp' shows what will happen if America doesn't wake up." And sure, every religion has their insane followers, but are insane Christians really the biggest problem these days, as far as religious madness goes? Pointing to the people in "Jesus Camp" (which, okay, I haven't seen) and saying the represent the dangers of religion seems a little, I don't know, off the mark.

But see, this is what I didn't want to get into! Jeez!

That comments line at your site wasn't there before. I'm pretty sure. I think. Probably not.

Jonathan Lapper said...

"...but are insane Christians really the biggest problem these days, as far as religious madness goes?"

No, they're not, and I don't want them to be. Hence the "waking up" to the problem before it's too late reference.

bill said...

Okay, well, fair enough, but let's just say I don't see the danger in Christianity run amock that you do.

bill said...

Also, I feel like I started us down this road with my comment, which was intended as a joke. It's your blog, and you can say whatever you like, and I respect your opinions and beliefs. I really have no hard feelings about your post.

Jonathan Lapper said...

And I have none about your previous comment. But I do enjoy the dubious talent we possess for taking the comments to a post by Dennis off track. Sometimes I feel Dennis is watching these comments, like some kind of mischievous god, amused at how far we'll take it before he picks just the perfect moment to step in and respond to some two word comment someone else made 12 comments ago! And this fills him with great joy as he watches us and giggles.

Hey Dennis, I think I have the workings for a good treatment here: Dennis Cozzalio, The Mischievous Blog God. When I've finished the graphic novel I'll see you get 30% of the cut.

bill said...

No, Dennis is probably watching stupid baseball or something. Or he's probably letting his finger hover over the "post" button, the pressing of which would release his "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" post to the masses. But he won't do it, the bastard!

Incidentally, Jonathan, I know you and I have this whole "friendly rivalry" thing going on, but I'm just going to tell you that I fully expect the Redskins to have their asses politely handed to them by the rotten, miserable, cheating (and probably Godless!) Patriots this weekend. So don't even bother with that one.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Godless?!? You're just saying that because of this quote from Bill Belichik last week, "I, Bill Belichik, have sold my soul as well as the souls of all my players to the devil in exchange for a perfect season." But that doesn't necessarily mean they're godless.

BUT BACK TO LEBOWSKI

At least I'm housebroken

Due to the Shamus' longtime former avatar I cannot help but think of Walter everytime I visit Bad for the Glass. He even refers to me as "Lapper" instead of "Jonathan" which seems like something Walter would do.

Ivan said...

"I dabbled in pacifism once..."

Does the book encourage/dispel/explain the rumor that John Milius was the inspiration for the character of Walter?
That's all I want to know, then I'll shut the fuck up.

bill said...

"Shut the fuck up, Donny!"

I'd never heard that rumor about Milius. How very interesting. I'd like to know if it's true, as well.

Mr. Peel said...

Truthfully, my favorite part of the book is when Turturro is talking about the Jesus sequel he wants to do, then it's offered that the Coens have stated the only sequel they really want to do is OLD FINK. Turturro responds, "Oh, THAT they're serious about." I look forward to the day when that movie finally happens.

"He fixes the cable?"

Megan said...

'Am I Wrong?'

Tried to motivate the clan to come out for Lebowski Fest. They weren't havin' any. I think the reasoning behind it was a unspoken agreement with the sentiment expressed here of not wanting to get too tired of this film too soon.

The Patriots WILL lose a game. I just don't know which one.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hey, Ivan. Sorry for taking so long to respond to your question. The book does indeed confirm that John Milius was one of three lively real-life characters that served as the as the inspiration for Walter, theother two being fellas by the names of Peter Exline, a USC film professor, and Big Lew Abernathy, a jack-of-all-trades who occasionally supported himself with acting and private eye work. All three are interviewed pretty extensively in the book, and all three are entertaining reads, full of that Sobchak bluster, and sometimes contradicting each other's versions of stories. And Milius is definitely as Milius as ever-- somehow time and age have made him more entertaining to me than he used to be, though I still don't have much use for Conan the Barbarian or Red Dawn.

Robert Fiore said...

I normally defer to other peoples' enthusiasm about The Big Lebowski. Like Harry Potter, it's not that I think it's bad, I just don't quite see what people are so wild about. While one can't turn up one's nose at a movie that shows any kind of affection for Los Angeles, particularly one that has burnished the legend so, I would point out the admittedly irrelevant detail of its essential condescension towards the city. The businessmen are fake businessmen, the artists are fake artists, the criminals aren't even real criminals. The people of Los Angeles are, in essence, clowns for your amusement. Contrast this with the Los Angeles of Quentin Tarantino, where you see example after example of professionalism, expertise and technical mastery (however left-handed the endeavor) that is the genuine heart (so to speak) of the city. Though I will give them the benefit of the doubt that the affection in Lebowski is genuine, it is the sort of "positive" portrait of Los Angeles that makes people in New York feel comfortable. As an L.A. comedy from the Coens I personally prefer Intolerable Cruelty (I believe I'm a cult of one), but then that movie is about people who are good at what they do, however morally dubious it might be.

About the Coens generally, up to Fargo it seemed to me that there was a balance in their work of movies done in earnest and live action cartoons. Since then the balance has tipped predominantly to the cartoon side, and I grow weary. To me the prime example of their limitations is O Brother Where Art Thou and its adaptation of the Odyssey. Homer's Odyssey embodies the raison d'etre for an entire civilization. In their Americanization the Coens turned it into a tale told by an idiot, which wouldn't be so bad if they gave any indication that they'd thought about what the implications of this were, or felt the need to. Unless it's simply Dumb Country Good Music.

In response to Jonathan Lapper I would say for myself that if I were looking for the deeper things we get from art I wouldn't be watching a movie, I'd be reading a book or listening to music. There is more human truth in single lines of poetry than there are in whole movies that attempt it. What I look to the movies for mostly, I find on reflection, is sensation and comedy. From each art form according to its ability. Which is why I have more time for the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino than Renoir or Rohmer. Sue me.