“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?