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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013

Lebowski Fest Returns to Milwaukee

The Dude Achieves Big Time

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Not everyone fell in love with The Big Lebowski the first time they saw it. That includes Will Russell, co-creator of Lebowski Fest, the traveling annual festival celebrating the Dude in all his Dudeness. He admits to “feeling almost indifferent to it.” And yet, something kept drawing him back to the Coen brothers’ hilarious 1998 satire of American culture and counterculture, high society and low. “On the third viewing lightning struck,” he recalls. Before long Russell was obsessed, working dialogue from the film into conversation, sparking the discovery of likeminded fans and the staging—in a Louisville bowling alley—of the first Lebowski Fest.

Needless to add, the Dude abides. Lebowski Fest has been held 50 times in 30 cities since its 2002 debut and comes to Milwaukee this weekend for the second year in a row.

Big Lebowski fanatics, the Achievers, are getting a bit like the Deadheads of old. UW-Oshkosh literature and film professor Paul Niesen has already attended 10 Lebowski Fests and plans to bowl a few rounds this year in Milwaukee. “Saying you saw The Big Lebowski in the theater on its opening weekend has become the new ‘I was at Woodstock, man.’ But I really did see TBL on its opening weekend,” Niesen insists. He initially related to the Dude’s hotheaded friend Walter (John Goodman), a Vietnam veteran struggling in vain to control the topsy-turvy world around him. “Now, I try looking like the Dude, and more significantly, adopting his lifestyle. To be sure, embodying the Dude is the healthier choice,” Niesen says.

The appeal has become multi-generational. Milwaukee Achiever Tom Hammer fell in love with the movie years ago (but not on opening weekend) and passed the affection to his son, Alex, who goes as the Dude for Halloween. “He’s a loser but has a special way of seeing the world,” Hammer says. “If you get a handle on his sensibility, you’ll watch the movie five times—and five times more.”

Unlike previous cult comedies (Rocky Horror, anyone?), repeat viewers of The Big Lebowski are rewarded with more than a sore rear end. The film isn’t merely funny—it’s funny in a deep sort of way. Jeff Lebowski, aka the Dude (Jeff Bridges), insulated from pain and bother by an unending round of pot and White Russians, ambles through life with a lazy but not disinterested shrug.

He’s the calm anchor in a mad, mad world. Contrast him with the fulminating GOP millionaire whose name also happens to be Jeff Lebowski—a coincidence that provides the film with its deliberately preposterous plot. “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski,” the tycoon shouts at the Dude, needling him about his beloved ’60s. “My condolences. The bums lost!” And then there’s the millionaire’s daughter, the pretentious performance artist (“ahhtist,” as she says), played by Julianne Moore with the clipped cadences and haughty manner of Katharine Hepburn to the manor born.

“I think part of the appeal of being an Achiever is that not everyone gets it,” Russell says. “It’s an inside joke shared by Coen brothers’ fans who are generally very smart, kind and like to have fun. You’re not dealing with morons here.”

Lebowski Fest opens with a White Russian liquid lunch at Pabst Theater Pub, 12-2 p.m. Aug. 16, and continues that evening with an outdoor screening of The Big Lebowksi and live music at Cathedral Square Park, 5-11:15 p.m. Aug. 17 brings the Lebowski Fest Bowling Party at AMF Lanes, 8 p.m.-2 a.m. The festival concludes on Aug. 18 with hangover brunches at Café Hollander, Café Centraal, Café Benelux and Trocadero.

For tickets and more information, visit pabsttheater.org/show/lebowskifest2013.

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