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How ‘The Big Lebowski’ became a cultural touchstone and the impetus for festivals across the country

Jeff Bridges is the Dude and John Goodman is Walter in the “The Big Lebowski,’’ which was released to mixed reviews in 1998. Jeff Bridges is the Dude and John Goodman is Walter in the “The Big Lebowski,’’ which was released to mixed reviews in 1998. (Merrick Morton/Gramercy Pictures)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / September 15, 2009

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So there’s this guy named the Dude, and some dudes break into his apartment and pee on his rug, so the Dude, an LA burnout whose real name is Jeffrey Lebowski, goes to find the other Jeffrey Lebowski, a rich guy the intruder dudes were actually looking for, so he can get him to replace the soiled rug, which totally tied the room together.

That’s the basic premise of “The Big Lebowski,’’ the Coen Brothers’ 1998 stoner caper, which also involves bowling, nihilism, a kidnapping, and many, many White Russians - a cocktail whose parts combine more cogently than the film’s plot points.

To the uninitiated, “The Big Lebowski’’ probably doesn’t sound like the sort of cinematic watershed that would translate to an enduring cultural phenomenon. But the movie has become just that. And we’re not talking about action figures and keychains, although they’re yours for the ordering.

The film - which was released to mixed reviews and spent all of six weeks in theaters, barely recouping its $15 million budget - has spawned a vibrant subculture that draws both scholars and slackers to the fold. The Dude has been cited in hundreds of doctoral dissertations and academic papers over the past decade. There is a religion called Dudeism, boasting more than 50,000 ordained Dudeist priests, and a publication called the Dudespaper, “a lifestyle magazine for the deeply casual.’’ Film producer Jeff Dowd, the actual person on whom the character of the Dude is based, has launched a second career making personal appearances as The Real Lebowski. This weekend an annual convocation called Lebowski Fest rolls into Boston for the first time, to rally the faithful with a film screening at the House of Blues and a bowling party at Kings Lanes.

Clearly, the Dude abides. The question is: Why?

“I think he’s a hero because he’s so different from what you see in the world as a hero,’’ says Will Russell, who dreamed up Lebowski Fest with his pal Scott Shuffitt during a lull in T-shirt sales at a Louisville, Ky., tattoo convention. Russell and Shuffitt call themselves the founding dudes. “He’s the opposite of society’s idea of achievement. He doesn’t have a career, a nice car, a wife and kids. He has nothing going on, but he seems genuinely content.’’

Indeed. The Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) is an accidental guru, a Zen master in bathrobe and jelly sandals: unemployed, unperturbed, unburdened by the judgment of others. He hangs out with Walter (John Goodman), a deranged vet, and dim, amiable Donny (Steve Buscemi). For recreation? “The usual: I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.’’ Some might spin the Dude less charitably, with words like lazy and loser. But for a certain slice of humanity he is an icon and an inspiration.

Edward Comentale, an English professor at Indiana University and co-editor of a forthcoming collection of essays titled “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,’’ led a two-day symposium at the 2006 Lebowski Fest in Louisville. Many of the papers delivered there also made it into the book, among them “The Really Big Sleep: Jeffrey Lebowski as the Second Coming of Rip Van Winkle,’’ “Logjammin’ and Gutterballs: Masculinities in The Big Lebowski,’’ and “A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest.’’

Comentale says that aside from the being the cheapest academic conference ever held ($125 for the function room at a local bowling alley) the gathering was a heart-warming collision of highbrow inquiry and bad pizza.

“We found a real connection with the fan culture, because they approach the film much like professors approach text. They love to quote it. It revolves around citation, debating the characters and gestures and motives, tracking down references. The fans are hungry for interpretation,’’ Comentale says. “They don’t watch this film in a passive way.’’

Tell that to Jason Brandenburg, a 35-year-old paralegal who lives in the South End. He somewhat shamefully admits that he’s seen the movie 40 or 50 times - “I know people have probably seen it several hundred times’’ - and is fond of playing it with the sound off during parties. That sounds good to Tara Colardeau, 26, who lives in Newton and is “in a very Dude-like way unemployed.’’

“So many subtle things happen in the background. In the Dude’s bathroom, there’s no toilet paper on the roll,’’ says Colardeau, who is attending Lebowski Fest as Walter’s ex-wife’s Pomeranian. “I found a werewolf hat and I have a little terry sweatsuit and some furry leg warmers. Also a first-place ribbon and my papers. I just don’t want to be confused with the ferret.’’

Nathan Burke, a 30-year-old marketing manager who lives in Waltham and is dressing as Walter for Lebowski Fest, echoes what many feel about the film when he says that “every character reminds me of someone I know. I think everyone knows a Dude, who’s lazy and avoids conflict, and a Walter, who explodes at the drop of a hat, and a Donny, who’s sweet but annoying. It’s damn hilarious.’’

“The Achievers,’’ a documentary about the film’s fanatical following, will be released on DVD next month. Taking their name from a group of disadvantaged kids for whom the rich Lebowski is benefactor, the Achievers have formed a classic cult community, according to the Brattle Theatre’s creative director, Ned Hinkle.

“Most cult films are flawed in one way or another, but they have amazing characters and quotable lines,’’ says Hinkle, who notes that even though people are screening “The Big Lebowski’’ voraciously at home, “when the Brattle or the Coolidge plays it, it still brings in a good crowd. It engenders a real community spirit.’’

Maybe that’s because above and beyond the film’s copious historical and genre influences - westerns, noir, Fluxus, surrealism, slackerism, Busby Berkeley, buddy flicks, war films, and the list goes on - “The Big Lebowski’’ is about friendship, says professor Comentale.

“There’s something about the warmth and tenderness between the characters, these people who are otherwise socially rejected, that plays out in the viewing,’’ Comentale says. “I’m struck by the fans who have so much affection for the Dude. He’s stalled, but he isn’t a loser. He represents an easier way of being in the world.’’

LEBOWSKI FEST Comes to Boston this weekend for a two-night bash: music and a movie screening Saturday at the House of Blues (all ages; $20 in advance,

$23 day of event; doors at 8 p.m.) and a bowling party Sunday at Kings Lanes (21-plus; $25 in advance, $30 day of event; 6 p.m.) Info and

tickets at www.lebowskifest.com

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