Bowling Balls and All, Lebowskifest Rolls Into Town

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009; 11:08 AM

What would the Dude think of Strike Bethesda, with its technicolored bowling pins, its wall of jumbo TV screens, its thoroughly vacuumed carpeting, its $9.45 grilled chicken panini, its unscuffed lanes splashed with purple black light? Absent is the sweet funk of bowling shoe deodorizer. There is neither wood paneling nor smoking. The room is, perhaps, too tied together.

Yet the first-ever Lebowskifest D.C. must crash somewhere, and that somewhere is a "night life" bowling alley in which hats, T-shirts and ripped jeans are frowned upon. Except for last night. The Dude, after all, likes his Bermuda shorts.

There are a half-dozen Dudes throwing rocks by 9 p.m. They are identifiable by their shoulder-length hair, their wool cardigans or bathrobes, their goatee speckled with milky traces of a White Russian. The Maudes are here, too, with their severe reddish bangs and monkish green capes. The Walters scream "Over the line," as is the Walterses' wont. The Jesuses strut, as the Jesuses do. Creedence clatters on the sound system.

If none of this makes sense to you, bummer, man.

But if this makes perfect sense to you, then consider: Can Washington -- the antithesis of Venice, Calif. -- abide a Lebowskifest? Seems like it can, if not by virtue of attendance (it's a Tuesday night in Bethesda, after all), then by virtue of spirited devotion to the Lebowski movement, which began modestly with the Coen brothers' largely ignored 1998 film "The Big Lebowski," starring Jeff Bridges as a lazy Los Angeles man who gets wrapped up in an absurd kidnapping scheme. On DVD it grew into the first cult movie of the Internet age, then hit the mainstream by becoming a fixture on dorm-room screens across the country, then inspired a multi-city festival, then became a slacker pseudo-religion (Dudeism, with the Dude as Zenlike prophet), then prompted a documentary on the fandom, then wormed its way into serious academic publications (more on that later).

And now, 11 years after they first saw "The Big Lebowski" together in theaters, a family of four bowls in costume in lane 29. The patriarch, Uri Yokel of Greenbelt, is dressed as Walter Sobchak, the militant blowhard played by John Goodman.

Is he, in real life, a Walter?

"There are some similarities, except I wasn't in 'Nam," Yokel says. "I had a high enough draft number."

"He has Walterlike tendencies, like rage," says his daughter, Erin Yokel, 26, who wears a nude-colored unitard encircled with a garland of fake plastic leaves. She's dressed in the avant-garde dance costume of the Dude's landlord, Marty.

"That's my son," Uri says, pointing to a nearby lad dressed in black. "He's a nihilist."

The Yokels' yellow Labrador, who had to stay at home, is named Dude.

Now imagine one of those slow-and-steady Coen tracking shots, as the camera slides along the lanes, past the Yokels, with bowling pins tumbling and balls cracking against gutters, as Bob Dylan la-la-la-la-la-las through "The Man in Me." Festgoers lob movies lines to each other (the movie teems with "viral linguistic memes," notes Vienna resident Eli Nelson, 38, who is dressed as the lughead who urinates on the Dude's rug). The overhead score boxes are filled with DUDEs and WALTERs and DONNIEs who are posting 81s, 84s and 56s. There's a trivia contest, with questions such as "Who was the bowling consultant on the film?"

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