Still Abiding After 15 Years: The Laid-Back World of 'Big Lebowski' Worship

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A decade and a half after its initial release in cinemas, the Coen brothers' strange cult comedy often gets mined for—and sometimes creates—spiritual meaning.

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Gramercy Pictures

On March 6, 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen's cult-classic film The Big Lebowski arrived in American theaters. So this week, I asked two of the world's biggest Lebowski fans—the co-founder of the annual multi-city Lebowski Fest and the founder of the worldwide Lebowski-based religion the Church of the Latter-Day Dude—how they were planning to celebrate the movie's 15th birthday.

One told me he was planning to eat some dinner at home, and perhaps watch part of the movie.

The other said he would probably take a nap.

That wasn't what I expected, given what I'd heard about the yearly ridiculousness of Lebowski Fests, and what I knew from my college years about the Big Lebowski Challenge. But I guess I shouldn't have been surprised: These guys have both devoted substantial parts of their lives to studying, teaching, and celebrating the ways of The Big Lebowski's pretense-free, slothful stoner protagonist the Dude. Commemorating the big day in the laziest manner possible might just be the highest form of exultation.

Over the last 15 years, the Coen brothers' oddball noir-Western-surrealist comedy about one man's complicated quest to get his rug replaced after a mistaken hitman pees on it hasn't just become a cult classic—it's become something closer to an actual cult. Not only has it launched at least one known, priest-ordaining faith; it's also become a field of study for religion and mythology scholars, too. In other words, some seek meaning in the movie, while others find meaning, and meaningful fellowship, because of it.

***

The Dude's epic, meandering tale, as brought to life onscreen by Jeff Bridges, has been interpreted by thinkers and theorists in a variety of ways over the past decade. For instance, it has been compared in classroom settings to that of the eternally cursed Sisyphus ("The act of bowling is an adapted symbol ... representative of the Myth of Sisyphus, [the] tragic Greek hero damned to endlessly toil by repeatedly pushing a rock up a hill ... This ceaseless labor is a metaphor for the absurd repetition and meaninglessness of everyday life") as well as to Sir Galahad's mission to retrieve the Holy Grail.

According to Andrew Rabin's essay "A Once and Future Dude," the Dude is "the man for his time and place," embodying late 20th-century American identity just as Galahad embodies the societal ideals of men in the Middle Ages. Which, of course, makes the Dude's soiled rug the Holy Grail. And like Sir Galahad, the Dude also represents a sort of Christ figure—but then again, so do a couple of other people in The Big Lebowski.

Lebowski repeatedly frames the Dude as a contemporary Jesus. Beyond the obvious similarity of hairstyle, the Dude also twice assumes a cruciform posture and is described sacrificially by the Stranger as "takin' her easy for all us sinners." The Dude is not the film's only Christ figure—Donny also is associated with Jesus, as is "the Jesus" himself, who provides an obvious anti-type.

Maybe that's just, like, your opinion, man. But religious leaders and scholars have weighed in, too, and they've also found higher meaning in the aimless Big Lebowski. In 2009, religion writer Cathleen Falsani published The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. In the book, Falsani, a Dudeist-ordained priest as well as a Christian, compared the Dude to the lamed-vavniks mentioned in the Kabbalistic tradition—the 36 souls on Earth at any given moment who are pure, righteous, and unaware that the fate of the world rests with them.

"Sometimes the lamed-vavniks appear to be humble fools—slackers or burnouts, in the parlance of our time—but the rest of us should take heed," she wrote. "We never know when we might meet one of the 36, so we should treat everyone as if the fate of the world rests on their unassuming shoulders."

And this January, Big Lebowski star Jeff Bridges and his Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman finally got in on the action with their co-authored project The Dude and the Zen Master. According to Bridges's introduction, he was flabbergasted the first time Glassman asserted that The Big Lebowski was full of koans, or Zen stories that only make sense if one accepts that life and reality are different from one's own opinion of them. According to Glassman, Lebowski-isms like "The Dude abides," "The Dude is not in," "Donny, you're out of your element," and "It really tied the room together" can all function as Zen koans.

***

So how, exactly, did this puzzling box-office flop come to be regarded as a parable narrated in the parlance of our time?

Oliver Benjamin, who founded the Church of the Latter-Day Dude in 2005 and co-authored The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski with the "Arch Dudeship" Dwayne Eutsey in 2011, has a theory about that.

"The Great Lebowski Re-evaluation gradually took root among the youth counterculture after the goddamn plane crashed into the building—exactly 10 years after the Dude buys a carton of half-and-half in the opening scene of the movie," Benjamin wrote in an e-mail. And yes, it's true: That half-and-half purchase, soundtracked by a televised George H.W. Bush speech about aggression and the "Eye-rackies," gets paid for by a check dated September 11.

According to Benjamin, a Los Angeles native now living in Thailand, the film's genius wasn't appreciated back in 1998 because it had simply arrived ahead of its time.

"No one could really get on board with the idea that this lazy anti-hero, the Dude, might somehow be someone to look up to or emulate," he said. The U.S. economy was in "full-achievement mode," and people had faith in America's financial and political institutions.

But fast-forward a few years—toward "phantasmagoric warfare, heretofore unthinkable institutional corruption, divisive political zealotry and a growing sense that our mythic moral compass is no longer reliable"—and the self-reliant, periphery-dwelling Dude lifestyle became a lot more appealing. "Suddenly it was necessary to crack the case of our received notions of heroism and achievement, and think about replacing them with something far more humane, even 'spiritual,'" Benjamin explained. "The Dude represented an idea of what that might be."

***

A year after the Great Re-evaluation began, the first major secular congregation of Lebowski fans materialized. Will Russell, a Louisville, Kentucky-based retail shop owner, and his buddy Scott Shuffitt—former bandmates whose band, Russell recalled, probably failed because they spent their rehearsals quoting The Big Lebowski instead of rehearsing—came up with the idea for Lebowski Fest in 2002, back when, as they've written, the film "had not yet been recognized as the minor classic it is."

"Suddenly it was necessary to crack the case of our received notions of heroism and replace them with something more humane, even 'spiritual,'" Benjamin explained. "The Dude represented an idea of what that might be."

As Russell tells it, he and Shuffitt were selling T-shirts at a booth at "a weird tattoo convention." "There were people suspended from ass piercings onstage," he remembered. "We were just out of our element, so we started quoting lines from The Big Lebowski to pass time." The guys one booth over joined in, and that's when Shuffitt and Russell realized they weren't alone in their obsession.

"We figured, 'If they've got this weird tattoo convention, we can have a Big Lebowski convention,'" Russell recalled. "So I was like, hey, I know a bowling alley that's real cheap.'"

They were half-kidding at the time. But, 12 years later, Lebowski Fest now holds annual two-day gatherings in cities all over the United States and abroad. The 2011 event in New York hosted a cast reunion that Bridges, John Goodman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore all attended, and that particular festival sold out Manhattan's Hammerstein Ballroom.

I asked Russell what it was about this strange, vaguely plotless film that seems to unfailingly bring people together—even in places where The Big Lebowski's core American-ness isn't as treasured. His answer was heartfelt and reverent.

"The Dude kind of crosses all boundaries," he said. "He's this kind of anti-hero, anti-materialism, low-ambition, content-with-who-he-is, genuine person. People really respond to that kind of character. The Dude doesn't need a fancy car or a big old house. He's just happy to take a bubble bath and go bowling with his friends. That's all he wants."

That is pretty universal, I said. To which Russell added, "Yes. That and the pot-smoking. I think everybody likes smoking pot."

***

Russell and Benjamin agree, though, that the Lebowski worship that's emerged over the last decade or so was in part enabled by a certain phenomenon the Dude and his friends would probably want no part of: social media. Without Facebook, meme generators, YouTube, and other content-sharing platforms, Benjamin said, it may have taken many more years for Lebowski to finally be appreciated—like Moby Dick (which earned almost no critical appreciation until decades after Herman Melville's death).

Russell, who called The Big Lebowski "the first cult movie of the Internet era," told me that in addition to having dinner with his wife and daughter and watching part of the movie, he'll likely celebrate the film's 15th by posting five or six quotes from The Big Lebowski throughout the day on the Lebowski Fest Facebook page—just like he does every day, each one reliably attracting hundreds of Likes from its 68,000 fans. "I'll post, 'I can get you a toe,'" he said, "and then it's just this long thread of people writing, 'Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o'clock this afternoon!'"

The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, meanwhile, or Dudeism, is also largely Internet-based. Dudeism.com and its forums offer Dudeism materials and a page where you can get ordained as a Dudeist priest, while Dudespaper, the Church's official online publication, circulates everything from bizarre, newly unearthed 1998 Lebowski promotional materials to heartwarming stories about Dudeists officiating other Dudeists' weddings.

Most Dudeists aren't so keen on organizing in real life at all, according to Benjamin. Loosely based on Taoism, Dudeism aims to produce self-reliance and improve self-regard, so the congregational aspect of it isn't strongly emphasized anyway. "The looser we keep it, the more 'Dude' it seems to be," Benjamin wrote. That may all change, though, when the Dudeist Social Network, a social media platform that will be pretty much exactly what it sounds like, goes live. "It'll be easier to disorganize some events without working too hard," he joked. Benjamin also has plans to launch Abide University, a Dudeist learning center.

***

So, are any of the Big Lebowski faithful actually making an effort to celebrate, or even socialize with one another, on this 15th anniversary of The Big Lebowski?

Not if they're true Dude disciples.

"We have many holidays that we indolently observe, usually by making a point to do as little as possible," Benjamin wrote in an e-mail—like the not-taken-all-that-seriously Indudependence Day, Take It Easyster, and Kerabatsmas, a holiday in honor of Steve Buscemi's doomed character Donny Kerabatsos (celebrated on Dec. 13, Buscemi's birthday).

March 6th is known among Dudeists as The Day of the Dude. But this year, as in other years, "We've tried to organize some events but haven't really been able to," Benjamin explained—and added, "I guess we should start planning something for the 20th anniversary now."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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