By Mike Hughes
Steel barriers corralled a group bubbling over with anticipation. Ahead, flashes of light reflected off the metallic underside of the overhang of the Hammerstein Ballroom suggesting the cast of The Big Lebowski was receiving the red carpet treatment behind canvas panels set up to block the public’s view. 34th street between 8th and 9th Avenues is always chaotic and New Yorkers are always invasively curious – their fear of missing out on something they think they should know about creates a vigilance that borders on suspicion. However in mid-August, at rush hour, on a weekday, 34th street is a sweating, hulking, honking entity. And given the tantalizing pageantry of Lebowski Fest, New Yorkers became curious enough to interrupt coitus.
“What’s going on here tonight,” a middle aged man in khakis and white sneakers asked a young couple waiting in line.
“The Big Lebowski,” the young woman surrendered after exchanging a look with her boyfriend that seemed to determine it was her turn to respond.
“Lebowski? That’s gotta be 15 years old! Why would you wait on line for that?”
The couple shrugged. Not because they didn’t know. But because if he didn’t know, it was just too damned difficult to satisfactorily explain to a stranger on the street.
The Big Lebowski is now 13 years old but it has aged well. Part of this preservation is due to the advent of Lebowski Fest – an annual festival celebrating all things Lebowski and allowing an outlet for diehard (or deranged) fans to mingle with other diehard (or deranged) fans and dress up as their favorite character from the movie. Usually it’s the one you most resemble physically – after all, you know if you’re a “Walter” (John Goodman), a “Dude” (Jeff Bridges), a “Donny” (Steve Buscemi) or a “The Jesus” (John Turturro) – however, one’s temperament can also factor in to this decision.
This thing, this opportunity to unabashedly express one’s love for The Big Lebowski, began a decade ago. Since then it has spread across the country. And that’s what people were waiting on line on 34th street on August 16 for – the 10th anniversary of Lebowski Fest, which coincided with the film’s Blu-Ray release and a cast reunion. This evening, Lebowski lovers would be treated to a question and answer session with the cast followed by a screening of the movie.
Once inside things got strange. Walter Sobchaks roamed the lobby chatting animatedly and intimidating some with their passion and their bulk.
Dudes with dirty cardigans, cargo shorts and scruffy beards slurped “Caucasians” from plastic tumblers ($6 White Russians were, predictably, the bar special – though reports indicated they were pre-mixed, light on vodka and heavy on cream).
Standing in line for drinks a fan (he was a “Walter” but had eschewed the full regalia) recalled the time he was driving with a friend and suddenly began quoting lines from the scene in which Walter and The Dude are about to hand off the ransom money to Bunny’s kidnappers.
“I said, ‘Your wheel! At fifteen m-p-h I roll out, I double back, grab one of ‘em and beat it out of him. The uzi.’ And my friend, he knew the scene, so he played along and said ‘Uzi?’ And I said, ‘You didn’t think I was rolling out of here naked, did ya?’ and then I did a tuck and roll out of the car.”
“Wait, are you saying you were so committed to the scene that you literally threw yourself from a moving car?”
“I really did. And it was weird, I even hurt my knee. Just like in the movie.”
The event kicked off with the creators of Lebowski Fest taking the stage dressed as bowling pins. After some rabble-rousing, they brought out the evening’s moderator, Clark Collis (Entertainment Weekly), who briefly addressed the crowd before introducing each cast member. They sat, from stage right to stage left, T-Bone Burnett, John Turturro, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi.
For the record, Julianne Moore looked stunning, John Goodman looked healthy and invigorated as he mugged for laughs, John Turturro looked overwhelmed but humble, Steve Buscemi looked like, well, like Steve Buscemi, and Jeff Bridges looked like a friggen movie star, which is what he is. He has an oddly magnificent hallucinatory effect on an audience. It’s likely only a matter of time before a strain is named after him.
The Q&A session was lively and depicted a cast that seemed to share a fondness for the culture the film has created as well as a fondness for one another. Unfortunately the onstage audio was a bit of a mess and every question resulted in a game of telephone with the cast member nearest the moderator trying to explain to the cast member next to them what had been asked. Eventually Bridges addressed the technical difficulties (“it’s surreal up here”) and attempted to lead the gathering in a group OM session instead. It didn’t really catch on.
Between the audio issues and the flurry of movie quotes randomly hurled at the cast by audience members (many of whom were dressed as the characters they were quoting), the scene was indeed “surreal.” Much of the time the cast appeared pleased by the audience’s enthusiasm, often laughing at or acknowledging whatever was being shouted at them. But on some level the cast’s amiability had more in common with the pleasant, appeasing smile you give to a sociopath on the subway than with the genuine thing. Somewhere, in the back of their minds, it had to have occurred that this whole thing could go suddenly and horribly wrong.
Steve Buscemi summed his evening up with a non sequitur. After being asked when he first knew that the movie would be a hit, several people screamed out various Donny-related quotes. Buscemi took a moment and said simply, “I haven’t smoked pot in like 20 years but I feel like I’m stoned.”
Buscemi also offered up what was arguably the take away moment of the evening. The question posed to each cast member was whether they had kept any mementos from the film. Buscemi explained how he got the entire cast to sign a bowling ball for him – even Sam Elliott, who only signed the ball after gruffly explaining that “I don’t normally do this.” Buscemi admitted some hesitation in telling the story as he feared that some of the audience might “break into his house” now that they knew of the existence of such a precious Lebowski memento.
However, it was Jeff Bridges who had the evening’s final words. When asked what people should take away from the movie, The Dude didn’t hesitate: “That it is all just, like, your opinion, man.”
The Dude’s philosophy was a big hit with those in attendance, who lustily cheered the decree.
Say what you will, it’s a philosophy that works. Whether you think Lebowski Fest is a glorious spectacle of over-the-top film worship or a spectacular waste of time, it’s all just, like, your opinion, man.