Media Geeks hits LebowskiFest Louisville!
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When you get cut off in traffic, do you call the guy a f$&%ing amateur? Perhaps you like the occasional White Russian. Think your rug really ties the room together? Maybe you hate the f$&%ing Eagles, man. If so, you may be one of the tribe. If not, I’ve probably confused you already. LebowskiFest is an annual gathering in multiple locations nationwide advertised as a “celebration of all things related to the Coen brothers cult comedy The Big Lebowski.” It’s also the best movie and bowling party nationwide, bar none.
Rocky Horror Picture Show is fast losing its cult-love crown to this follow-up to the Coens’ critically acclaimed Fargo. I’m telling you, for this nihilist it can’t happen fast enough. Opening in March 1998, The Big Lebowski sputtered out in theaters, doing $27 million worldwide over an approximate $15M production cost. That means that when you add in all the marketing costs it likely lost Polygram Entertainment a small amount of money to produce the film and get it in theaters. Genius, however, often goes unappreciated in its time. Within college campuses and head shops nationwide (not to mention legions of everyday Dudes and Maudes) The Big Lebowski is a modern classic. I’m not going to get into the plot here; it’s on Netflix, go watch it and get back to me.
It’s good, I’ll wait.
OK, now we’re on the same page. Organized by a couple of guys from Louisville, LebowskiFest takes place at bowling alleys in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Louisville, the oldest ‘Fest, where the 9th annual celebration took place at the Executive Strike and Spare this last Friday and Saturday night. And Media Geeks was there. Day One The typical schedule of a two-day LebowskiFest begins with an evening get-together for a screening of the film preceded by a number of rockin’ local bands. At the outdoor field across the parking lot from the bowling alley, where the Friday evening screening was held, the vibe is mellow and distinctly different from any screening or show I’ve been to. Everyone’s smiling, and everyone’s here to enjoy the movie together. Everyone here knows they can walk up to anyone, bust out a Lebowski quote, and start a conversation. And that’s exactly what happens. A LOT. Attendees run the gamut from youth to retirement, straight-laced to men like Josh Nutting of Chicago, who showed up in a black short-sleeved shirt displaying no less than eight Lebowski-related tattoos across both his forearms.
“I was a junior in high school when it came out. I didn’t hear about it until the summer of my junior/senior year. A friend told me I should see it. I got it on VHS, we watched it, and I fell in love. By the time I was in college, for me and my friends it was a weekly thing to do.”
The LebowskiFest crowd is remarkable in its complete normalcy. Jim Hoosier, a bowler who played silent partner Liam O’Brien to John Turturro’s Jesus Quintana in the film, has come to join the fun and introduce the film. Hoosier, who is not an actor and was chosen by the Coens for his combination of bowling chops and Irish appearance, has become a regular feature of these get-togethers nationwide. “It amazes the hell out of me”, Hoosier proclaims from the back of the audience after the film gets rolling. “For such a little part in a movie… (the Coens) saw something in me they liked, I went through the interview process, and here I am.”
Hoosier, and the extent to which everyone loves him for his short role in the film and willingness to come and directly receive everyone’s adoration of it, turns him into a minor hero at every celebration he attends. He cannot buy himself a beer or White Russian at a LebowskiFest; there’s always a fan there eager to cover him, and he accepts their hospitality with gracious good humor. Hoosier sits at the back of the crowd among friends and fans to enjoy the movie. Everyone laughs at the best lines. Some sing the songs, quietly. It’s warm and humid, and as the third act starts a breeze picks up, bringing a strong thunderstorm closer to the area. Cloud to cloud lightning starts flitting across the sky. Everyone stays and finishes the movie to the end.
Saturday continues with, as is only proper in the south, a garden party in the mid-afternoon. I try to sleep in after staying up ’till almost 2AM but end up getting up at 7:30. Not because I’m over-excited, you see; I’ve got young kids, and my body doesn’t know anything other than being shook awake by 7 to go make breakfast. So I take my time and rest up for the night’s festivities. After hitting the Cracker Barrel for some eggs, then spending a few hours in the room reading the paper, I head down to the Executive bar where the fun’s getting going early. A few hours later, as a number of us return to the hotel to ready ourselves for the party proper, we notice that this garden shindig’s going to be held in an open-air Kentucky sauna. 90+ degrees, 90% humidity – what a southerner might call a sultry day. I switch into shorts and sandals and head over, thanking myself for having reserved a room within stumbling distance.
The atmosphere is stoner-genteel; people meander and chit-chat while a band, the Seedy Seeds, get their set going on the stage. They’re pretty good, consisting of an electric banjo, acoustic guitar, and a drum kit and playing a great set sounding a bit like the Decemberists. They’re dressed as Austrian hikers down to the lederhosen. They’d later win the group-costume contest for portraying what happens when you find a stranger in the alps, an obscure Lebowski joke related to the TV-broadcast edit of more colorful dialogue from the film.
What kind of party would it be without games? There’s the Mug Toss, where you try to smack a poster of Jeff Bridges in the head with a mug, as did the Sheriff of Malibu. And a Ringer Toss, where you pay to throw a satchel of dirty undies (the whites!) from the passenger seat of a green and rust 70’s Plymouth Fury over to the other side of the car to hit a mannequin dressed as a nihilist. And all profits go to Big Brothers / Big Sisters!
The merchandise is also popular. People walk about labeled as “ACHIEVER” and “SPECIAL LADY FRIEND”. It all feels like one big in-joke that everyone’s in on. For an event that seems prone to overly-precious hipsterism, there’s remarkably little on display.
The evening portion – the bowling party – begins with a vengeance. I’ve just emerged from my room, having transformed myself into Walter Sobchak, when a couple guys down the hall call me over to their room to push a White Russian into my hand. We hang out and talk for a while; Daniel and Scott are both originally from Detroit, but Scott lives in Richmond, VA now. Daniel flew over to Richmond so he could ride in with Scott, just for the fun of it. They’re true Achievers, having attended 6 or so ‘Fests nationwide. I’ve never met these guys before, but there’s a bond there. We head to the Executive together, Daniel pulling along a cooler filled with beer and White Russian components, all of which he gives away freely out in the parking lot like a samaritan of drunken goodwill. We get inside, and come apart as easily as we came together. I’ll see them a couple more times over the night, and we’ll greet each other like old friends, mostly as a joke. Inside it’s a sensory overload of Lebowski costumes and bowling. Jesus is licking his bowling ball. Walter’s pulling a piece out on the lanes. Four Canadians from BC are dressed as Kahlua, vodka, half & half, and non-dairy creamer – everything you need to make a White Russian. Four more guys represent the LAPD Crime Lab, Lebowski Division. There’s Karl Hungus! Multiple Maudes! One man is dressed as a dead-on impersonation of The Stranger, and he ends up winning the variety costume division. I’m a pretty good Walter, but I lose out to another who’s truly gone all-out. He’s got a dog carrier, a bowling bag, dog tags, and the perfect yellow aviator glasses. Ah well, better luck next year. There are no hurt feelings among anyone who doesn’t win here – we’re all Achievers, and nobody wants to be very un-Dude.
I walk about, deciding not to bowl – it is Shabbos, after all. One husband & wife couple has actually flown here from Bosnia – she tells me she spent the last month and a half working on their costumes. She’s dressed as a bowling-valkyrie Maude, and he’s in a dead-perfect rendition of Jesus Quintana’s purple jumpsuit. Neither of them win the costume contest, and both laugh it off. I wander into the finals of the trivia contest, which approaches frame-by-frame minutiae to separate the final three contestants. What was the name of the repair shop across the street from the bowling alley in the scene where they find out The Dude’s car was stolen? Name both of Maude’s attendants. The costume contest is fun, but trivia is where the crowning of the biggest Lebowskiphile occurs.
The contests over, the costumes displayed and dismantled, the party settles down to bowling and hanging in the bar. Everyone it seems has taken their costume off, or at least down a bit for comfort. And it becomes physically clear what’s been felt for the past two days. I’m a Lebowski, you’re a Lebowski, and once in a while everyone should just say “f&$% it Dude, let’s go bowling.”