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August 15-21, 2007

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Cult Leader

Mark It!: New 'Lebowski' book really ties the legacy together

By Steve Palopoli

LAST YEAR I got a call from the four guys who put together Lebowski Fest, the Big Lebowski appreciation event that is rapidly expanding toward world domination. They said they were researching a book and had discovered I was the first person to write about The Big Lebowski as a cult-movie phenomenon.

How did I feel, you ask? I felt like a Lebowski Achiever. And, you know, proud we are of all of them.

They asked a lot of questions about the cultural significance of the movie, and it was a blast. But I didn't think much about it after that. These guys run festivals all over the country at this point. How could they possibly find time to finish this book?

Well, somehow they did, because I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski and What Have You by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell hit stores last week. What they've done with this book is pretty amazing. In order to capture the impact the Coen Brothers' 1998 end-of-the-millennium cult film has had on an unsuspecting world, they interviewed just about everyone they could think of, starting of course with the movie's cast. The Coens themselves declined to be interviewed, but Russell remembers when they got the famously pranky directors' official statement on the book: "You have neither our blessing nor our curse."

As for the stars, only Steve Buscemi turned them down. Jeff Bridges—The Dude himself—not only granted them an interview, he wrote the book's introduction. And he let them use 10 of his behind-the-scenes pictures.

John Goodman—the very mouth that spewed forth the now-famous command "Shut the fuck up, Donny"—answered the phone with "Lebowski Fest? What do you bastards want?" Turns out he was only yanking their chain.

"In terms of thrill, talking to John Goodman, that was really cool," says Russell from his home in Louisville. "'Cause he was really into it. He says Lebowski is his favorite movie that he's ever done. He's also in love with the dialogue. He was quoting lines with us. It was awesome."

OK, quoting Lebowski lines with John Goodman is already reason enough to do this book, but they also discovered Sam Elliott cusses like a sailor. They asked him about the meaning of his Lebowski character, and Russell remembers, "He was like, 'I don't know, boys. You'd have to ask the brothers about that. You can analyze this shit to death, but that ain't my MO.'"

If you're a fan, you already know how Russell inscribed the copy of the book he sent Elliott: "Just one thing—do you have to use so many cuss words?"

Over the course of three years researching the book, the Dudes also sought out the real-life inspirations for the characters in the Coens' film. This included tracking down not just Jeff Dowd, the indie distributor who was the brothers' inspiration for The Dude, but also John Milius, Hollywood's premier right-wing nutjob, who was one of three people on whom they modeled Walter.

But what's truly impressive is that the Lebowski Fest Dudes found the real Little Larry, of "Is this your homework, Larry?" fame. His name is Jaik Freeman, and he remembered the real-life incident (which seems to have been pretty much like the scene in the film), but asked, "What does that have to do with The Big Lebowski?"

"It did not occur to him when he saw it that that was based on his life," says Russell. That did not occur to him, Dude.

There's a lot more great stuff in the book, including interviews with Lebowski superfans like Tony Hawk and Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman. There's also a history of how Lebowski Fest evolved, and—my favorite part—a guide to shooting locations, so you can make pilgrimages, with beverage.

And, what do you know, there are two whole sections of the book covering my original 2002 article on The Big Lebowski, which ran originally in Metro Santa Cruz and then this very paper. Far out. What I really wanted to know was how many times Russell has watched this movie now, and if between the book and the festivals, he ever needs a break from it. Pfft, of course not.

"Oh man, I really don't have a count. I'm going to have to say I've seen it over a hundred times now," he says. "I'll still put it in if I'm feeling bummed out. It's like a great album. It never really loses its shine."

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and a stranger in the alps here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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