Saturday, September 19, 2009

In My Element: Lebowski Fest 2009

This past weekend, September 11th and 12th, I got the opportunity of a lifetime. What is that aforementioned opportunity you ask? Meeting the president? A game of catch with Joe Mauer? Time travel? No, it was none of those trite, bourgeois, activities. You, my friends, are reading the blog of a man who got to attend Lebowski Fest.

If you don't know what Lebowski Fest is, and you have any sort of working knowledge of American pop culture within the span of the last 20 years, you can probably extrapolate what it is. For those of you who have failed to achieve, Lebowski Fest is an annual celebration of all things Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers' 1998 cult classic about the misadventures of a Los Angeles-area slacker tied up in a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery. The event has taken place in a different U.S. city every year since the first in Louisville, KY in 2002 and features two days of White Russians, bowling, and copious amounts of quoting and watching the film in question.

Here before you, Charge Shooters!!! is the testament of the deeds performed over that fateful weekend by a humble Achiever and bowling enthusiast from the Twin Cities.

Lebowski Fest has taken place in many major cities across our republic (and even one in the UK) over the past 7 years: Chicago, New York, Austin, the obvious "Las Anguhless", but this is the first year the event has come to Joel and Ethan Coen's hometown of Minneapolis, due in part to the touring aspect of this year's Fest. I first heard about the coming of LF to the Gopher State in May of this year, at which point I bought my tickets without hesitation. The summer ticked by, each day bringing me closer and closer to the promised event. Finally when the time came, Brandt as my witness was I ready!

You see, Big Lebowski is my favorite movie. I can think of no other movie that I've seen that comes together with such a combination of great plotting, memorable characters, quotable lines, and just plain hilarity. If for whatever reason you've never seen the Big Lebowski, get to your local video store and rent it; better yet, ask to borrow it from one of your friends, you're bound to know at least a half dozen people who own it, you won't be disappointed. Lebowski has been called "the first cult film of the internet era". Upon it's release in 1998 it was a commercial and critical flop. Sometime around the early 2000's (in the chaotic era of Lebowski Fest's ascendancy) it found an audience on home video and has grown in popularity with the passing of every year. I remember first seeing the movie at a friend's house on a Sunday afternoon in 2003, after which I immediately swooped by Best Buy on my way home and bought myself a copy on DVD.

Okay, Boivin: you got to see a movie you like. What else? What is it about Lebowski Fest that makes it so darn special?

I'll tell you.

The first day of the Fest took place at legendary Minneapolis rock club First Avenue (the setting of another modern-day classic, Purple Rain) on Friday night. The film was to be shown for the capacity crowd, preceded by performances by bands with an appreciation for the exploits of the Dude. My friend and I lined up when the doors opened around 8:00 and were able to score prime seats in the section of folding chairs set up in front of the stage; if we were going to sit through two bands and a 2+ hour movie, not to mention stoppage time, we were going to be sitting down for it. While I wasn't anticipating the music, I was pleasantly surprised. Local act Little Lebowski Urban Achievers (obviously taking their name from the movie, thus setting themselves up for gigs playing any sort of Lebowski-related event) started things off, opening with a cover of Creedence's "Lookin' Out My Back Door", a song featured on the Lebowski soundtrack. The rest of their set was their own stuff, which was good, and their banter kept to discussions of Dude-isms and what-have-you, as well as their love of High Life tall boys. The next act, a band that was following the Fest on its national tour, was called Black Diamond Heavies. The band consisted of a guy with a keyboard and a guy on drums, with the keyboardist "singing" (growling might be a more apt term). I couldn't even begin to shoehorn them into a genre, but blues-ish might be the best description (their Myspace gives a better one, "Sounds Like: Thunder and lightning"). They played a bunch of their own stuff along Big Lebowski soundtrack staples such as Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me" (the movie's opening title theme), Creedence's "Run Through the Jungle", and Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In".

One of the highlights of the evening was a taped introduction by the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, who wanted to tell us he couldn't be there in person because he was in Canada filming Tron: Legacy. That got a big round of applause, let me tell you. This in turn was introduced by the "founding dudes" of Lebowski Fest dressed as bowling pins. It was pretty awesome and it all led up to an even awesomer screening of the movie.

Have you ever gone to see Rocky Horror at a midnight show? With a shadow cast? If you haven't, do it. It's great fun. That's what this was like, but it was all unrehearsed. The audience spoke the best lines along with the actors on screen, cheered when new characters showed up for the first time, and those in costume ran in front of the screen to re-enact the action we were all witnessing- the best of these being when a man dressed as the Dude's landlord proceeded to perform his dance "cycle" as it happened on screen. Here we all were, united by a common love for this particular little movie, and I can think of few other instances where talking during a movie is so much fun.

Well, there's that and the fact that I had about 6 or 7 White Russians over the course of the night. That goes a long way.

Saturday was another matter entirely. The evening's events were a bowling party at Memory Lanes, a great little old-timey bowling alley in Midtown Minneapolis. Besides the promise of unlimited bowling, there was also a costume and trivia contest. I'm quite the fan of cosplay myself so I had to put something together. My friends always pointed out the fearful symmetry between John Goodman's character Walter Sobchak and myself, so I was pretty determined from square one to make myself a Walter costume. The question was, how was I to make a costume that stood out and was truly unique? It would turn out that Saturday night yielded a record number of Walters in attendance, so I was right to plan for something unique and different. I resolved to go as Vietnam Walter. The character being a veteran of the Vietnam War who had spent a good deal of time watching his buddies die "face down in the muck", I felt I had a great idea on my hands. Equipped with my grandpa's old Army jacket, a pair of camo cargo shorts I happen to own, and a trip to a local military surplus store, I was able to put together what I figure to be a pretty good costume. I did not win the contest however, there were just too many Walters, I guess. On the plus side, one of the Fest's founders told me he really liked my costume, so there's something.

As far as trivia goes, contest was really hard, I got eliminated after the first round. I didn't even know the pomeranian had a name! I don't wanna talk about it.

In terms of the actual bowling, I bowled some of the best games in recent memory. I also made some new friends! My friends and I shared a lane with a young engaged couple by the name of Michelle and Matt (the fact that the pair of friends I went with also happened to be dating made me feel a bit like Bobby from Company). These two, a photogenic pair of 30-ish yuppies represented something interesting about Lebowski Fest, something different than other fan conventions I've been to in my day. You didn't have to be a fanboy to enjoy Lebowski Fest, you just had to be a fan. The two of them both said that the Big Lebowski was one of their favorite movies, and a fun night of bowling is something every American should enjoy, so why not? Despite the numbers of guys walking around in bathrobes and dressed as obscure throw-away jokes from the movie, they seemed to have a great time and never felt like they were members of an oppressed minority for not being the biggest Lebowski fanboys in the world. That was the atmosphere of the weekend, it was all about fun. It was an interesting experience to see how a cult movie can be so widely appreciated by such a wide range of people.

So, until Lebowski Fest rolls through the upper Midwest again, I remain a satisfied Achiever.

Here are some photos of the event (not mine) and a video (again, not mine).