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[whitespace] 'The Big Lebowski'

The Last Cult Picture Show

Bowling and movie culture collide in the cult of 'the Big Lebowski.' What, you didn't know? That's the whole idea.

By Steve Palopoli

SAYING Bill Whitbeck is a fan of The Big Lebowski is like saying the pope is a little bit Catholic. He estimates he's seen the Coen brothers' 1998 film somewhere in the ballpark of 100 times--that's right, one-zero-zero times--and that's barely the tip of the iceberg. See, this isn't some Star Wars nerd painting his face out of tragically misguided puppy love for The Phantom Menace. This is true devotion.

"My degree of obsession," says Whitbeck, "is that at my funeral I would like to have an actor who looks sort of like Walter come out and give the eulogy about Donny, using the actual name Donny. Totally out of context, totally ridiculous. People in my family would be going, 'What the hell is this all about?' But one or two guys would be whispering, 'That's really funny.' 'Donny who loved bowling'--that would be my eulogy."

If you've never seen The Big Lebowski, you should know that the scene Whitbeck's talking about--in which John Goodman, as high-strung Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak, delivers a eulogy for 'Donny who loved bowling' while Jeff Bridges, as his best friend and bowling partner, Jeff Lebowski, far better known and from now on to be referred to only as the "Dude," looks on--is not one of the better-known scenes in this film. It is not even in the Top 20 most-quoted scenes in a movie that is so religiously quoted its screenplay has become a kind of secret code among fiercely devoted fans.

And yet Whitbeck wants it for his eulogy, just to get a chuckle out of the two or three people who'll know and love the movie enough to appreciate the joke. If you'd be one of them, you're probably just twisted enough that you're thinking right now about stealing his idea. Even more likely, you're part of a growing legion of militant fans who aren't afraid to bowl a couple of games, tip a White Russian--the Dude's favorite drink--and keep adding to a never-ending vocabulary of quotable lines in the name of Lebowski.

If so, congrats--you've earned yourself a founding share in the transformation of the Coens' previously unheralded masterpiece from a critically bashed and fiscally disappointing follow-up to their surprise hit Fargo to either the last great cult film of the 20th century or the first great cult film of the 21st, depending on how you look at it.

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Obviously You're Not a Golfer: Five things you didn't know about 'The Big Lebowski.'

The Dude Speaks: His Dudeness goes on record.

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The Endangered Cult

The fact that a broad range of movie lovers from college students to musicians to Tony Hawk and his skating buds (who have been seen ditching skating events to go bowling, drinking White Russians and tossing out references all the way) lays claim to true ownership of The Big Lebowski fandom speaks to how meaningless the concept of a "cult movie" has become and how desperate hard-core movie fans are to find a film that has special meaning to them, a meaning they can only understand because of who they are and what they bring to it. A movie that defines their identity even as they continue to define its identity by uncovering new layers of ideas and beauty and sharing them with the rest of the truly devoted.

Back in the heyday of the cult film, there were plenty of such movies to go around. The concept caught on in the early '80s, both as a salute to older movies like Freaks, Night of the Living Dead and Plan 9 From Outer Space that had developed a rabid following in revival theaters and film societies over the years and as a way to describe the appeal of newer movies like Taxi Driver, Altered States and Basket Case that were rejected as too weird or disturbing by many mainstream moviegoers but worshipped by a select few.

The first and last word in cult movies, though, was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It had everything that the term had come to mean, in spades: Rejected completely by critics and mainstream audiences as an artistic atrocity in its initial release, it fed off an underground army of relentless midnight-movie fans until it became a true phenomenon, the Star Wars of the true freaks. Rocky Horror fans had more complicated rituals and secret rules than the freakin' Freemasons, and it's still considered the ultimate cult movie.

Another defining moment for this movie-fan movement was the publication of Danny Peary's book Cult Movies in 1981. Still the best thing ever written on the subject (along with its two sequels), the book listed the Top 100 cult films at the time, from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane to John Waters' Pink Flamingos.

Cult Movies also carried an explanation in the foreword that would turn out to be more critical than Peary could have imagined: "The typical Hollywood product has little potential for becoming a cult favorite because it is perceived by everyone in basically the same way. ... Although Gone With the Wind and Star Wars have fanatical followings, I have not included them, because they are still distributed with the intention of attracting the masses rather than devotees on the fringe of the mass audience; the word cult implies a minority,, and the studios are well aware that Gone With the Wind and Star Wars still attract the majority of the movie audience."

What happened over the next two decades, however, is that cult movies became so cool (and such potential cash cows in the profit-recycling world of home video) that every studio wanted one--and was willing to spend millions to get it.

Meanwhile, mainstream audiences became so hypersavvy that offbeat movies like David Fincher's Se7en or The Blair Witch Project, which once would have been relegated to cultdom, became massive, overhyped hits. Even low-budget filmmakers were churning out ready-made weirdness like Liquid Sky or camp like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, all of them so self-aware of their cult potential they made you wince.

Even David Lynch, the definitive cult director who had delivered Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, was pandering to slightly interested mall bunnies by 1990 with the cult-lite of Wild at Heart. Quentin Tarantino, who managed one of the only true cult films of the '90s with Reservoir Dogs, quickly went on to blockbuster Hollywood success with Pulp Fiction.

'Big' Surprise

With the cult-movie phenomenon losing steam as hip audiences turned films that would have once been on the fringe into monster mainstream hits, no one really imagined The Big Lebowski would score a second chance. It had gotten some nice buzz during production, but what the world was expecting at the time was a movie that would build on the new bankability director-writer-producers Joel and Ethan Coen had cornered with their Oscar-winning hit film Fargo. Rumors were going around that their new film was something about bowling and that Steve Buscemi was returning--that certainly sounded funny. Like Raising Arizona's easily accessible kind of funny.

But the world at large just wasn't ready for The Big Lebowski. It quickly fell off the pop-culture radar at the time of its release, dismissed by many critics as confusing, overly complicated and in general a massive artistic failure for the Coens, who were more used to being the darlings of reviewers searching for cred with the indie crowd.

Things were looking just as bleak at the box office. Released on March 8, 1998, The Big Lebowski opened to a paltry $5.5 million at the box office, far behind the $16.8 million debut of U.S. Marshals and even further behind the $20 million-plus that Titanic pulled in its 12th week. Lebowski even finished behind the other two major openings of the week, the now-forgotten Twilight and Hush. It would go on to barely make back its meager $15 million budget in theaters, earning far less than Fargo despite the fact that it cost twice as much as the previous Coens film and had a wider distribution.

But a few of those who did see The Big Lebowski in its short theatrical run saw something they liked in its weird crime-comedy plot, which smashed the conventions of classic Raymond Chandler Los Angeles noir into the ethos of modern slackdom as exemplified by Bridges' note-perfect delivery of the Dude. The visual design is the Coens' most extravagant and downright amazing ever, especially the Busby Berkeley-type musical dream sequence in which a dancing Dude woos Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) to the tune of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)."

And like all of the best cult films, the movie seems exponentially funnier with each viewing--it grows on you like probably no other film of the last 10 years (or, more specifically, since 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross). Hard-core fans find themselves quoting only the more obvious lines upon their first few viewings--"Shut the fuck up, Donny," say, or "There's a beverage here" or "Mark it zero"--before eventually picking up more and more comic nuances in the dialogue until the whole movie seems worthy of constant reference.

"Every line is quotable. The dialogue is so great," says Whitbeck. "Now, a lot of times, we'll try to pick up on even more subtle lines that sort of repeat themselves or whatever, or commenting on this shot or that shot. We're laughing--how could you not--but taking it apart a little, too."

It helps that the movie has a weird circular structure in which the little snippets of dialogue Whitbeck is talking about are initially said by one character and later repeated by another in an entirely different context--usually by the Dude, who spends much of the movie unconsciously parroting other characters in his subtle, almost Zen-channeling way.

The Tao of Dude

What am I talking about, "almost?" Hell, the Dude is Zen, in his own pin-monkey, rent-dodging way. You think I'm joking, but if you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe the venerable Spirituality & Health magazine, which was moved to describe the Dude thusly in a write-up on the movie:

"The Dude lives in a rundown bungalow in Venice, Calif., smokes pot and is unemployed. His ability to live in the present moment without any concern for the future arouses the ire of other, achievement-oriented Californians. ... Once the Dude gets involved in a kidnapping case, his life swirls in chaos. But he is unperturbed by it all. Like a good Taoist, the Dude realizes that freedom is understanding we are not in control and never will be. By taking it easy, the Dude abides and becomes a spiritual teacher of crazy wisdom."

Wow! Could the Dude be any more Zen? I think not. But in any case, anything that could be said to wrap up this tale of the indelible legacy of the Coen brothers' cult masterpiece and the ever-expanding awareness of the Dude has already been said--by Sam Elliott as the Stranger at the end of the film itself:

"The Dude abides. I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there, the Dude, takin' her easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals. Welp, that about does her, wraps her all up. Things seem to've worked out pretty good for the Dude and Walter, and it was a purty good story, dontcha think? Made me laugh to beat the band ... parts, anyway."


The Big Lebowski plays Friday and Saturday (July 26-27) at midnight at the Nickelodeon Theater, 210 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz. (831.426.7500)


To contact Steve Palopoli: spalopoli at metcruz dot com

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From the July 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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