White Russians and the Human Comedy: All About Lebowski Fest with Founder Will Russell

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Bill Green/Lebowski Fest

In 2002, two dudes at a tattoo expo began exchanging lines from the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, which at the time had not quite reached the cult, dorm-room poster status it has since achieved. Since then, Lebowski Fest has been held in cities across America, and in the UK, and a documentary has been made on Lebowski’s fandom.

Lebowski Fest founder Will Russell, right, in 2002, courtesy of lebowskifest.com
Lebowski Fest founder Will Russell, right, in 2002/Lebowski Fest

Lebowski Fest Founder Will Russell runs two t-shirt store/roadside attractions, both called “Why Louisville,” in Louisville, Kentucky. When I spoke with him he said he was waiting for AAA to jump the battery of a bus he had fashioned into a vehicle for selling t-shirts. He ended most of his anecdotes with extremely apt references to The Big Lebowski.

Russell told me the First Annual Lebowski Fest was held in Fellowship Lanes, a Baptist-run bowling alley that did not allow cursing or drinking—thus, they could not show the film itself, which is riddled with poetic uses of the “F” word. Nor could they play the soundtrack, which features dialogue from the film. The attendees were also unable to drink White Russians, the protagonist’s drink of choice, “but we achieved anyway,” Russell said, making reference to the “Little Lebowski Urban Achievers” organization in the film. It maybe speaks to the overall positive attitude of the Lebowski fan base that the Lebowski Fest’s website speaks of the event purely in a tone of amusement: “Yes, there was actually a big sign when you walked in with the words “NO CUSSING” scrolled ominously by the door. The irony was irresistible…”

Via Lebowski Fest
Via lebowskifest.com

Spin wrote about the event, and James G. Hoosier, who played a minor but memorable character in the film, appeared at the Las Vegas Lebowski Fest: “He was a total rock star,” Russell says. Jeff Dowd, on whom the Coen brothers modeled Jeff Bridges’ iconic aging Los Angeles hippie character The Dude, has made several appearances. Like The Dude, Dowd was a member of the Seattle Seven in the early ’70s and loves White Russians.

A poster for Lebowski Fest in Philadelphia, via lebowskifest.com
A poster for a Lebowski Fest in Philadelphia/Lebowski Fest

But Russell’s favorite memory of any Lebowski Fest is from 2005, when Bridges himself appeared and performed songs. According to Russell, Bridges wore The Dude’s signature jelly shoes, and asked if Russell wanted to try them on. “He threw one of the jellies across the room and insisted I take my sock off and put it on. It was kinda warm and moist, but I felt the spirit of The Dude and I was instantly relaxed. I was like, ‘Wow, far out, man.’” I suggested it was sort of a Cinderella story, and Russell agreed.

Many of Russell’s most fascinating stories involve the Fest’s costumes, which range from main characters to details in the film’s surreal musical dream sequence to interpretations of individual lines of dialogue. Two attendees came as Moses and Sandy Koufax in honor of a single line from the film in which John Goodman’s character, Walter, defends Jewish tradition. Two women came as The Dude’s car, with Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band referenced numerous times in the film, playing out of the stereo. The Dude’s and Walter’s colorful expressions have been expressed literally through costume numerous times, according to Russell: “Does the Pope s—- in the woods?”, with a real tree and a toilet and a newspaper bearing the title, “Vatican Times,” for instance. Other lines of dialogue interpreted as costumes, in which the figurative language the characters use became literal aspects of the outfit, included “New s—- has come to light,” and a famous line repeated throughout the movie, the one preceded by the phrase, “You see what happens, Larry?”

“That one was maybe a little over the line,” Russell admitted. It was in San Francisco.

Even characters who don’t appear in the film, but who are only mentioned in dialogue, have been represented, according to Russell, such as Walter’s ex-wife and her new husband, and Larry’s Social Studies teacher (“kind of a ‘Hot for Teacher’ vibe”).

A disembodied toe costume, via lebowskifest.com
A disembodied toe costume/Lebowski Fest

Russell told me a man even entered the contest after passing away: two attendees entered their Uncle Frank’s ashes in a coffee mug, the way one Big Lebowski character’s ashes end up in the movie. As Russell recounts it, the two did this in accordance with their uncle’s wishes. Russell said he tried his best to explain the story behind the can of ashes to the crowd, but in the commotion, his point was lost, and the costume only won second place. This disappointment seemed fitting to me, given the pitiful nature of the character’s death and commemoration in the film.

Russell described the Lebowski Fest crowd as one “smart enough to get the Coen brothers sense of irony, but that loves to have a good time… It’s like a Star Trek convention with a lot more drinking and bowling… People form relationships for life. We’ve seen weddings, babies have been conceived at Lebowski Fest…” He continued, quoting The Big Lebowski’s narrator: “I guess that’s how the whole darn human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself…”

Lebowski Fest comes to San Francisco October 11-12.

  • Samara

    I like your style, dude.

Author

Nate Waggoner

Nate Waggoner's writing has appeared on SFWeekly.com, thefanzine.com, and in Sparkle & Blink. He has read at KQED’s New Kids on the Block Litcrawl event, Quiet Lightning, Bang Out, 851, and Write Club SF. He and his ex-girlfriend host a podcast called “Invitation to Love,” which is available on iTunes. He is the author of a comic book called "A Lifetime of Free Haircuts." He is an MFA candidate in Fiction at San Francisco State University.

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