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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lebowski Comes to Milwaukee

A festival honoring the Dude in all of us

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The Big Lebowski came and went without ringing much change at box offices during its theatrical release in 1998. Maybe it was because the marketing flaks were puzzled by trying to identify the precise demographic for a film about a comical crew of '60s casualties, set during the time of the Persian Gulf War, who stumble into a crazy crime caper involving a Dick Cheneyesque millionaire, his Lolita trophy wife and a gang of German nihilists. Oh, and the '60s casualties spend much of their ample free time in the neighborhood bowling alley.

The Big Lebowski
may have tanked by Hollywood's inflated expectations, but the twisted comedy by Ethan and Joel Coen eventually found its audience, demographics be damned. The film's afterlife has even inspired a group of fans to initiate a traveling annual festival in its honor. Now in its 10th year, Lebowski Fest comes this weekend to Milwaukee, the bowling capital of America.

Like most of the film's devotees, Lebowski Fest co-creator Scott Shuffitt didn't see the movie in a theater during its first run. Instead, he stumbled across The Big Lebowski on cable in a hotel room and was left with an indelible impression. Asked why it's attracted such a strong cult following, he replies: "First and foremost, it is so very quotable. I guess the fact that it didn't do well according to Hollywood standards probably has something to do with it, and the fact that it takes a couple of viewings before you really get it. All that and it's the greatest film ever made."

Working backward through his quote: The Big Lebowski is absolutely the funniest comedy of the past 20 years, but greatest film ever? Well, the Dude abides. Truly, The Big Lebowski's satirical plot operates on many levels and, unlike, say, Rocky Horror Picture Show, repeat viewers are rewarded with more than just sore rear ends. It's not just funny—it's deep in a funny sort of way. The Big Lebowski's box office failure only enhances the fans' sense that they have discovered something special beyond the mainstream rut. And those quotes? "Not on the rug, man."

Shuffitt could have added one more thing: those hugely outsized, memorable characters with all those quotable lines. Let's start with the film's protagonist, Jeff Lebowski, aka the Dude, which may go down as Jeff Bridges' finest two hours. Insulated from pain and stress by an unending round of doobies and White Russians, the Dude ambles through life with a lazy shrug. His hotheaded buddy Walter (John Goodman) is a Vietnam vet struggling in vain to control the topsy-turvy world around him. Pulling a gun on a fellow league contestant at the bowling alley, he insists: "This is not a game! This is bowling! There are rules! Am I wrong? Am I wrong?" Usually, Walter is wrong, even if his heart is sort of in the right place.

And then there is the fulminating GOP millionaire whose name also happens to be Jeff Lebowski—the coincidence that becomes the spring for the film's plot. "Every bum's lot in life is his responsibility, no matter who he chooses to blame," he states, encapsulating an ideology in a few memorable lines. "Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski," he adds, needling the Dude about his beloved '60s. "My condolences. The bums lost!" Let's not forget the millionaire's daughter, the pretentious performance artist Maude (Julianne Moore), who speaks in clipped Katharine Hepburn cadences, describes her art ("ahhht") as "strongly vaginal" and chides the Dude for being "fatuous." And then there are those German nihilists ("Vee believe in nothing")...

Shuffitt and his partners also wrote the book on the film, I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski and What Have You. The publishers sought the approval of the Coen brothers, who responded only with: "We give you neither our blessing nor our curse."

"I have never met them," Shuffitt says of the enigmatic filmmakers, "but they did let us use a prop from the film for one of our fests." Specifically, the marmot on a stick the nihilists toss into the tub while the Dude is trying to enjoy his bubble bath (and his Song of the Whales cassette).

Lebowski Fest Milwaukee starts with a White Russian Liquid Lunch at noon on June 22 at the Pabst Theater Pub. The Movie Party, 5-11 p.m. June 22, takes place at Cathedral Square Park and includes live music, a screening of The Big Lebowski and White Russians on tap. General admission is free; VIP seats are sold out. There will be an 11 p.m. after-party that night at Bad Genie Rock Lounge. The June 23 Bowling Party at AMF Lanes is sold out. June 24 brings a Hangover Brunch at both Café Hollander locations, Café Centraal, Café Benelux and Trocadero. For more information, go to www.lebowskifest.com.