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all words: Tom Risen
all photos:Ben Droz

DAY ONE: 930 CLUB

One movie has become the most quotable cult classic in a generation, and made the white Russian a sacramental beverage and really ties the room together, man. After showing “The Big Lebowski,” to thousands of costumed superfans in 15 cities, the Eighth Annual Big Lebowski Fest caught the trail down to Washington, D.C. for the first time Monday at the 9:30 Club.

The club was a natural choice for the organizers of the 2009 “Speed of Sound Tour,” and the festival gets bigger every year and there’s every indication they’ll be back in town for 2010. Will Russell and Scott Schuffitt dressed like giant bowling pins in white cartoon gloves while they emceed the festival they founded at a Louisville, Kentucky bowling alley in 2002.

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“The 9:30 Club is this legendary place, and they have a really laid back staff,” said Russell. “We try to look for independently owned places on the tour. We had the Louisville movie showing in a field, so the movie should always have a casual atmosphere.”

The Black Diamond Heavies promoted their new album “Alive As Fuck” with John Wesley Myers head banging vocals over keyboards and Van Campbell driving punk blues beats on bass drums with a Dude logo. But they got huge cheers covering The Dude’s favorite mix tape songs like Kenny Rogers’ “I Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival.

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And then, the room went dark before Jeff Bridges himself appeared on screen via satellite, drinking a white Russian to introduce the role that made him a cult superstar as The Dude. Bridges came in person at the first stop of the tour in Los Angeles but couldn’t be there since he’s shooting “Tron Legacy,” due out next year, so The Dude drank his trademark white Russian wearing an out of place Tron helmet.

Then the lights came down, the movie came up and people started reciting the narration being done by Sam Elliott’s cowboy The Stranger, or singing the ballad that played behind it. And then The Dude appeared before the club, and his rounding the corner of a Ralph’s grocery store in a bathrobe brought fist-shaking cheers from the bathrobe-clad crowd in celebration of his slackerdom.

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“It’s a fairy tale, ‘The Big Lebowski’, and the Stranger narrates it, so everybody loves the opening,” said Russell. “The love of it is really all about The Dude. He treats people well and abides them whether they’re porn stars, millionaires, nihilists or his crazy friend Walter. He doesn’t have the typical kind of success like a job, kids or money but The Dude abides and we take comfort in that.”

Like many other Coen Brothers movies, “Lebowski” involves lots of people scheming to get a fortune in cash, some spiritual undertones, a little timely violence and John Torturro. Yet the main character of super-hippy The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges is what makes the movie, even more than his Vietnam veteran buddy Walter, which is John Goodman’s favorite role ever.

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“Times are tough these days, and it’s good to know that The Dude is out there, taking ‘er easy for all us sinners,” said Russell.

Along with shades and stubble, Dude’s signature Pendleton wool zigzag sweater was the look to have, only found on eBay now since they stopped making them years ago.

“I paid about $200 for it online,” said John Salvia from Baltimore. “That was in 2006, and it’s only gotten more popular so I can’t imagine what they charge now.”

The fans were definitely in their element dressing as every conceivable character or object from the movie, even characters the script mentions but never shows. Someone wearing Vietnam camouflage gear like John Goodman even had little Larry’s homework from certain scene.

But Russell and Schuffitt told their crowd of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers that the best was yet to come on the second day of the festival at the Bethesda bowling party.

“The bowling is the best part of LebowskiFest, and is of course a massive part of the movie,” said Russell, still dressed as a bowling pin. “If you think this is fun, think you’ve seen costumes, you haven’t seen anything yet until we have contests for it tomorrow.”

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DAY 2: BOWLING:

The annual Lebowski Fest attracts a very special breed of superfan, “The Achievers,” whose knowledge of the movie is legion along with their love of drinking white Russians and bowling.

The eighth and largest annual celebration of the 1998 comedy “The Big Lebowski,” went into its main event at Strike Bethesda bowling alley Tuesday.

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Lebowski Fest founders Will Russell and Scott Schuffitt celebrated both ‘zesty enterprises’ with a costume and a trivia contest, which included miniscule details like the names of silent characters, or “who was the Gaffer on the crew?” Dude.

Since many women I know have never seen the film, I personally suspected the movie might be more of a guy thing. Thankfully Anna Duncan, the Washington area winner for best impersonation of The Dude’s leading lady friend Maude, assured me Lebowski was not just “some stoner guy movie”.

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“Women love this movie, Maude is a totally awesome feminist character, I mean she’s dresses up like this Valkyrie goddess in The Dude’s dreams,” said Duncan. “I think it’s an incredible movie, it celebrates women’s independence, their rights to defend their rug and what have you.”

Other women of Lebowski Fest had great costumes like a Tara Reid impersonation by a blonde dudette in a black bikini, the obligatory Viking helmet valkyries or Cynthia Ackerman, a character only mentioned once in the movie. Another character not even in the movie who won third best costume of the night was ‘the man in the black pajamas’, a Viet Cong impersonator inspired by a speech given by John Goodman’s Vietnam veteran character Walter.

“Me and Charlie eyeball to eyeball, Dude,” says Goodman in the movie. “The man in the black pajamas Dude. Worthy fucking adversary.”

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Another secret to the success of “Lebowski” is a special blend of the Coen’s trademark spiritual undertones, which in 2006 inspired other enterprising fans of the Lebowski phenomenon to adapt it into a religion known as “Dudeism”.

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The founder of the Taoist-Buddhist Church of the Latter-Day Dude is freelance journalist Oliver Benjamin, who lives part-time in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and goes by his handle “The Dudely Lama” or “Olly Lama.”

“It might be the only film in the Coen’s oeuvre to offer a workable spiritual approach that can be applied to our lives,” Benjamin wrote us in a very Dudely e-mail. “Their other films tend to invoke a biblical ‘as you sow so shall you reap,’ motif or some similar pessimistic/ironic view of human folly, but Lebowksi is exactly the opposite – it provides one of the most optimistic characters ever shown on film.

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Seeing The Dude with a kind of Buddha belly and Zen master quality, more than 60,000 people have registered online to become Dudeist priests in “the world’s slowest growing religion. Its recently released holy book “The Tao Dude Ching” is inspired by the philosophy of Lao Tzu and can now be read completely online where it lays out hilarious insight like, “Bowling is everlasting because it does not have a point.”

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Other writings compare the character of Walter as a harbinger of Neo-conservative politics and Dude as the man for his time and place because he offers the outmoded American heroic ideal as an outdated of accommodation instead of pre-emption.

“We’ve had so many great submissions from both amateur and professional writers around the world who really have excellent insights into what Dudeism is and should evolve into,” wrote Benjamin.

Benjamin pointed out the mutual independence of his opinions from Lebowski fest, man. At Strike Bethesda, the Lebowski Fest made known their own fame by playing the 2008 feature documentary, “The Achievers,” on screens behind each bowling lane. The documentary is about the founding of Lebowski Fest and the super fandom that inspired it, with interviews including from Jeff Bridges and footage of past fests from Louisville to London.

“Proud we are of all of the Achievers, that includes you too now,” said Russell to a crowd of cheering bowlers sipping white Russians. “Thanks so much for helping us round out The Speed of Sound Tour, and we’ll see you at Lebowski Fest next year.”

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