WHY LEBOWSKI FEST WORKETH
"I am a stranger in a strange land." / "This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!"
Thanks to Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, several compliments have been heaved in my direction with respect to my status as a fan of the film. Usually "achiever" paired with some hyperbolic prefix like "super-" or "mega-". I struggle to accept such kind words, because I don't think I deserve them. People say, wow, you must be a huge fan of the movie. And I shrug and I say, I don't know, am I?
You see, being a fan of something, well, that's a loaded idea these days. I am certainly a fan of the movie in that I enjoy it. But the term 'fan' conjures up connotations I did not earn; I never participated in or contributed a damn thing to Lebowski fan culture until this thing creeped out my door. As someone who deals a lot with fan culture and fan-created media in both my business and personal lives, I know that fandom is more a verb than a noun, and while I'd earned my chops as a Lebowski fan in the sense of being, I was not nearly as up on the doing until Two Gentlemen sort of catapulted me to the grown-ups' table.
Don't worry, I'm a quick study. This past year has been a pretty major crash course for me in this fandom. I read I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski, watched The Achievers, visited The Little Lebowski Shop and learned that Facebook updates are usually responded to in the form of quotes. But it all paled in comparison to my first Lebowski Fest, on November 4, 2010 at Brooklyn Bowl. I knew this would be the case all along, and, hell, we planned for that. How many other authors can you name whose book release date was planned around a Lebowski Fest, really.
I'd like you to join me at the Fest, then, through fresh eyes.
The Fest illustrates something that I think the world takes for granted about the movie. The Big Lebowski is the only standalone film I can name that has regular conventions. By 'standalone', I mean that the movie is one movie, and not a franchise, with nothing more from the fountainhead to hand down to new consumer markets. There are no television programs, no sequels, no Saturday morning cartoons, no Expanded Universe spinoff novels by people like Kevin J. Anderson. The yearly convention in your city lasts longer than the total amount of content it celebrates.
This is commendable. I love Star Wars, but if it had just been one movie that came and went, however successful, I don't think we'd be celebrating it on a regular basis today, for the same reasons that nobody goes to KaneCon and takes pictures of their friends holding sleds. There just wouldn't be enough to make an evening out of. Even The Rocky Horror Picture Show, still enjoying the gold standard of participatory fandom in cult cinema, had a fruitful career on stage before anyone rolled film; there's gas in the tank.
Oh, I'm sure the odd standalone movie has had a convention once, maybe twice. Probably some sci-fi flick I've forgotten about. But every year? And yet here is The Big Lebowski, with a convention all its own and satellite events around the country. What to think?
The main thing that struck me was the realism of the costumes. When at a sci-fi convention, I think, cool costume; I see the effort, not the character. Lebowski Fest, by contrast, drove me to the point of distraction. Maybe Jeff Bridges just has an Everyman kind of face, but I kept thinking I was seeing him and not just a guy with a lovingly tended beard. Ridiculous but true. It was like going to a Star Trek gathering and having to keep reminding yourself that none of these people were actually Leonard Nimoy. Obviously some costumes are more elaborate than others—no one's gonna fool me into thinking they rolled out of bed in a gold Viking getup—but if all you need is a bathrobe and some facial hair, and it sort of hangs off you in the right way, the costume stops being a disguise, and the effort is subsumed in the message.
I was also struck by the mood at the film screening. I was expecting something more in the way of ritual, or at least an incessant simultaneous chanting of every line in the Goddamned movie. Instead, a more casual mood had set in; despite the crowd being sprawled across a combination lounge, dance floor and bowling alley, the film had created the atmosphere of everyone just going over to a friend's unusually large house to watch a movie. In high school, my mixed-company friends and mine had a thing about watching Braveheart together (long story), flopped on couches or on stools brought up from the kitchen. It was like that, except with an awful lot of complete strangers.
For my part, having a book to promote, I was in the position of the guy at the party who doesn't watch the movie but instead hangs in the back and talks quietly with a few guys at the side. I started dancing when "Just Dropped In" dropped in, but failed to cultivate mass interest in the rhythm. The movie did not need our help, it seemed.
I have come to the conclusion that Lebowski Fest succeeds because it puts the 'being' back in the 'doing' of a convention. No doubt the trivia and costume contests are hotly contested, but the activity that best sums it up might be the bowling. The old joke about being able to enjoy sex and golf without being any good at them probably applies to bowling. It is not how well I do at bowling but how I feel when I do it that matters. When treated as a game, and not a sport, it is a game for the passive, the at-peace, the Dudeist tourist.
Most conventions are grander affairs. Humongous halls rented out for that slightly stressful Disney World brand of fun, where you want to see everything and do everything and pack it all in. Lots of lines to wait on, you're on your feet all day and schlepping around free crap you grabbed from tables on general principle. This frazzled sensation has its place and I wouldn't trade it for the world, but Lebowski Fest takes another fork in the road. Little to wait for, less to check off your list. You just show up and abide.
My publisher will throttle me if I do not report on the sales of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, a book that you should probably buy at least fifteen copies of. Went all right, Dude's car got a little dinged up. I introduced the book and read a few choice snippets to the crowd before the movie started, flanked by a mini-entourage of booth bunnies in fetching Elizabethan garb. Enjoyed meeting people, shaking hands and, yes, selling and signing the odd copy.
Eventually the bookstore liasion running our part of the event had to pack up and leave. She took the books with her, thus ending the sale, and as such my commitment to do anything while I was there.
I hung around an hour or so after that.