Lebowski Fest D.C. Allows Fans of Coen Brothers Movie to Unite in Dude-Ship

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

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 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 Lebowski Fest D.C. must crash somewhere, and that somewhere is a "nightlife" bowling alley in which hats, T-shirts and ripped jeans are frowned upon. Except for Tuesday. The Dude, after all, likes his Bermuda shorts.

A half-dozen Dudes are throwing rocks by 9 p.m. They are identifiable by their shoulder-length hair, their wool cardigans or bathrobes, their goatees speckled with milky traces of White Russians. The Maudes are here, too, with their severe reddish bangs and monkish green capes. The Walters scream "OVER THE LINE," as is the Walters' wont. The Jesuses strut, as the Jesuses do. Creedence clatters over the sound system.

If none of this makes sense to you, then bummer, man. If this makes perfect sense to you, then consider: Can Washington -- the antithesis of Venice, Calif. -- abide a Lebowski Fest? Seems like it can, if not by virtue of attendance (it is 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 hippy-dippy burnout who gets wrapped up in an absurd kidnapping scheme in Los Angeles.

On DVD, the movie grew into one of the first cult movies of the Internet age. Then it hit the mainstream by becoming a fixture on dorm-room screens across the country, then inspired a multicity "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.

And now, 11 years after they first saw "The Big Lebowski" together in a theater, a family of four bowls in costume in Lane 29 at Strike Bethesda. The patriarch, Uri Yokel of Greenbelt, is dressed as Walter Sobchak, the militant blowhard and buddy of the Dude played by John Goodman.

Is Yokel, in real life, a Walter?

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

"He has Walter-like 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 movie lines to one another (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 like "Who was the bowling consultant on the film?"

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