This past weekend, fans of The Big Lebowski came to Mezzanine, a night club in downtown San Francisco, and Classic Bowling Center in Daly City, to celebrate the 1998 Coen brothers film by watching it, quoting it constantly, drinking white Russians (favorite beverage of the film’s laid-back protagonist, The Dude) and showing off their costumes. The event came at a time when Lebowski has perhaps reached a height of popularity and can no longer be considered a “cult” film: San Francisco Lebowski Fest got write-ups in SFist, SFGate and SFWeekly, in addition to my post on this blog. Everyone has now seen The Big Lebowski in someone’s dank basement in college or high school. “Actually, I think every time I’ve seen this movie I’ve been on a date,” my friend Jill said at one point. “Someone was just like, ‘We have to watch this, it’s my favorite movie!'”
Maybe for that reason, the scene at Mezzanine Friday night was almost confoundingly normal. There were surprisingly few costumes. Mezzanine is a night club, and to get to hang out on the balcony, you have to spring for bottle service. So I was not supposed to take this photo:
I took all of these pictures, but the official @lebowskifest Instagram account has some really great ones.
Paul, seen here as The Dude, is from Newcastle, California. This was his third Lebowski Fest, and his second in San Francisco. The “easygoingness” of The Dude appeals to him. “I wear sandals year ’round,” he told me. “I don’t even own socks.”
“Your feet are disgusting,” his friend added.
A man dressed as a white Russian, drinking a PBR, told me he likes the film’s “dada” qualities.
Two bands performed. The first was Millionaires Using Coupons, a rap group that incorporates Big Lebowski quotes and samples from the soundtrack into their songs.
Their videos, reenactments of scenes from the film, played on a wall.
For a few years now, the rapper Wale has been incorporating Seinfeld references into his songs, to brilliant and compelling effect. I think Millionaires Using Coupons are trying to do the same thing with The Big Lebowski. In comparison to Seinfeld, though, The Dude is a little bit too much of a hip-hop character already for the juxtaposition to work: The Dude smokes copious amounts of weed, and his adventures get him involved with porn stars and crime.
“People ask me about the slang in our songs and I just tell them it’s THE PARLANCE OF OUR TIMES!,” one Millionaire said in between songs, awkwardly incorporating a quote from Julianne Moore’s character, Maude.
“This is starting to piss me off,” said someone behind me.
Next up was the Extra Action Marching Band, which can only be described as a marching band/burlesque show, which also has a man yelling into a megaphone and making feedback noises with it. They started on the stage and waded into the crowd. As you might guess, it was amazing. Also, I highly recommend you watch this (questionable for work) clip of their cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”
What does it mean when a bunch of mostly white people get together, drink Caucasians, and watch an Oom-pah band that celebrates two Jewish directors’ ironic appropriation of Valkyrie imagery, after a pretty bad, pandering rap performance? It’s like an ethnic/historical math problem.
For all the fanfare over it, the film itself, which we all sat on the floor to watch, holds up beautifully. It is a marvel of genre-bending: the plot is based on Raymond Chandler, but its slapstick and dream sequences set to ’70s rock, as well as its costumes, make it a kind of ballet, and its oft-quoted dialogue is quick, witty, and lyrical, albeit vulgar: “Do you enjoy sex, Mr. Lebowski?” “‘Scuse me?” “Sex. The physical act of love. Coitus. Do you like it?” “I was talking about my rug.” “You’re not interested in sex?” “You mean coitus?”
If Friday night was startlingly normal, Saturday night separated the fanatics from the casual movie-quoters. The bowling alley is an expensive Uber ride from Daly City Bart, and there is not much else to do for most of it but bowl and people-watch. Seeking out that which has “cred” or authenticity is the heart of the worst hipsterism, but there is something especially fascinating and beautiful about an event where you have to drive out and play a game that, to me, is extremely unrewarding, almost menial, in order to see some great costumes and speak in quotes. Here are those costumes:
Tom started coming to Lebowski Fest ten years ago. He won several “Best Dude” awards in the costume contest, and started volunteering to go along to each festival, which took him all over the country, and to England. I asked if different costumes reflected different personalities– whether there’s a marked difference in general between people who dress as The Dude and people who dress as Walter, The Dude’s belligerent Vietnam veteran bowling buddy played by John Goodman. “No, because a lot of Walters are really nice,” Tom said. “And some Dudes– well some Dudes are less ‘Dude’ than The Dude.” “Mostly it just depends on who you look like,” he added. “Like you, I think, could pull off the landlord.”
Most people who see The Big Lebowski in a dank basement in college, or anywhere else, enjoy it, but The Lebowski Fest shows what’s beautiful about Cons and Fests and fandoms in general: people go to great lengths and put in a lot of time and effort in order to pay tribute, often extremely specific tribute, to a work of art that is important to them. It’s worth it, whenever you get a chance, to go see such a spectacle.