For some movies, like Schindler's List, once is enough, thank you very much. Others, like The Matrix or Blade Runner, reward you with new insights or details each time you watch them.
And then there's The Big Lebowski. Like a smooth White Russian, Lebowski can be enjoyed frequently, its particular blend of flavors always delicious and satisfying in ways that are hard to describe. Its sweetness carries a hefty punch, though, and it always leaves you just a little bit woozy.
Fans of the 1998 Coen brothers' cult comedy gather frequently at Lebowski Fests across the country, where they suck down oat sodas (beers) and Caucasians (White Russians, the Dude's favorite loudmouth soup) and pepper each other with endless quotes from the movie while dressed like their favorite characters. A first-ever renegade version of these quirky confabs will take place March 12 at the Wilma Theatre in Missoula. Organizers Joe Easton and Rick Wishcamper are calling it "The Big Lebowski: The Next Round Robin (I Can Get You a Toe)." Obviously, they're not into the whole brevity thing.
The event's name comes from a scene in the movie where tightly wound Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman) is explaining to his laid-back buddy the Dude (Jeff Bridges), that some kidnappers, who sent them a toe supposedly snipped from the foot of a hostage, are mere amateurs.
"Oh, I can get you a toe, believe me..." says Walter, "Hell, I can get you a toe by three o'clock this afternoon. With nail polish." Costumes are encouraged, and I imagine you might see a few random toes.
The Big Lebowski is a three-ring circus of aggressively odd characters, so the opportunity for costume ideas is virtually limitless. Easton recounts one Lebowski Fest he attended where a participant showed up dressed as a Korean soldier, carrying a pair of mannequin legs. Even hardcore fans of the movie had to think hard before they came up with the reference: the wheelchair-bound Mr. Lebowski telling the Dude that he doesn't complain, "even though a Chinaman took my legs in Korea."
Such inspiration will be rewarded at Friday's event, as they'll be giving out Lebowski-appropriate prizes during the movie's intermission for Best Dude, Best Walter, Most Arcane Costume and a few other Lebowskian achievements. The Wilma's upstairs bar will be serving White Russians exclusively, says Easton, and Lebowski achievers can enjoy an actual bowling lane in the theater. Just don't step over the foul line, Smokey.
Easton, an investor in Wishcamper's Rocky Mountain Development Group, has been a fan of Ethan and Joel Coen's work since their first films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona.
"I love 'em all," he says.
Lebowski is weird, though, even for them. He and Wishcamper, one of the owners of the Wilma, cooked up their own festival just for kicks.
"Ninety percent of everything Rick and I do is just to make other people laugh," says Easton. "Seeing it on the big screen will be funny. We'll laugh out loud because other people are laughing out loud."
I have lots of friends who toss off Lebowski quotes like so many briefcases full of dirty undies thrown off a wooden bridge. Most would agree that Lebowski lines are somehow a cut above quotes from other comedy icons like, say, Caddyshack or The Blues Brothers. Easton and I discussed the source of the appeal, and how Lebowski—or any movie—could hold up so well under repeated viewings.
"I catch something new almost every time," he says. "The last time I watched it, in the 'shomer Shabbos' scene, when Donnie asks Walter how he gets around on Shabbos if he can't drive, he pronounces it 'shammus.' I never noticed that before."
But he's sure it was no mere slip-up. The Coens are notorious for their control and precision, and no movement is spontaneous, no scrap of dialogue is ad-libbed. In Lebowski, this is all the more astonishing when you watch the Dude, trying not to spill his Caucasian ("Hey, man, there's a beverage here!") while being bum-rushed into the back of Mr. Lebowski's limo. His stuttering, stumbling attempt to explain that "some new shit has come to light" is a masterful performance by Bridges, our generation's most naturalistic actor working in his most iconic role. While Lebowski wasn't nominated for even a single Oscar, it was gratifying to see Bridges receive his long-deserved Best Actor hardware at the Academy Awards last Sunday for Crazy Heart.
Lebowski is more than a straight-up yukfest, though. Eli Bierwag, a Lebowski devotee who works at a Missoula television production outfit, appreciates the dark edge of the film. He's been a diehard fan since he first saw the movie in 1998.
"It was an immediate home run," he says. "We watched Chinatown in our [University of Montana] Intro to Media Arts class one day, and The Big Lebowski the next," Bierwag said. "Then we could see how Lebowski has a lot of the film noir elements. It's a film noir wrapped up in a comedy."
The Coen brothers themselves have acknowledged as much, saying that The Big Lebowski, right down to its title, is an homage to The Big Sleep, the Raymond Chandler noir classic. Such aspects will be discussed long and loud at Friday's event. But I'd rather flunk social studies than over-think it. Best to just dig the two hours of movie bliss on its own terms, as it careens from broad slapstick to nuanced highbrow humor with the velocity of a hurled bowling ball, scattering all the pins of conventional comedy and predictable plotlines in the process.
Hey, I'm not tryin' to bust your friggin' agates here, but "The Next Round Robin" is a mandatory party for all Lebowski fans, or just anyone who wants to see the rug that ties the whole room together.
"The Big Lebowski: The Next Round Robin" pre-party starts at the Wilma Theatre Friday, March 12 at 7 PM, and the movie shows at 8 PM. $5.This story was updated Thursday, March 10.