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."
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.