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At Lebowski Fest Lanes, in Spirit, the Dude Resides

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?"

District resident Cat Greer, 27, bowls in a bikini. She's Bunny, the slutty wife of the Big Lebowski, the titular villain who pulls the Dude down a rabbit hole of intrigue.

"I figured: alcohol, bowling and costumes -- what's not to like?" she says, shaking a glass of White Russian. Strike Bethesda wisely stocked extra cases of Kahlua and vodka, plus 24 pints of half-and-half, to accommodate voluminous orders of the Dude's preferred beverage.

The drink is only part of an ethos that's defined by a roll-with-the-punches, take-'er-easy mentality (which is very Dude) that occasionally can be interrupted by short, irate outbursts (very Walter). The movie is "Sex and the City" for guys, the Dudeists say. It's the "Citizen Kane" of stoner bowling movies. It's the closest thing you can get to doing drugs without actually doing drugs. It's also a litmus test for potential friends and love interests.

"I said, 'Jan, let's watch this movie and see how you make out,' " says Massachusetts resident Ken Faggiano of his special ladyfriend, who sits nearby made up as Maude, the hyperpretentious artist who manipulates the Dude. "And she liked it. That's how I judge a woman."

It's about being on the same frequency as others.

"I want to be in a room with a bunch of people who get it," says Walter channeler Daniel Foley, 37, who spent $400 to drive up from Richmond and get a hotel so he and his ladyfriend could enjoy a Lebowski Fest in person.

It's about being the man who's exactly right for his time and place, as the Dude was to 1991 Los Angeles.

"Sometimes there's a man," says District resident Tab Bainum, 24, echoing the film's opening narration.

"Every guy wants to be that man," says his friend Annika Ostman with the faintest hint of exasperation. (The Maudes of the world do not suffer men who want to be that man.)

The film, coyly plotted and dense with symbolism, invites both intellectual surrender and probing analysis from a variety of angles: medievalism, modernism, postmodernism, slackerdom, nihilism, militarism, masculinity, femininity. Some of these topics are given serious consideration in "The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies," an anthology of scholarship that will be published in November.

"There are many better works of literature and film, but they don't seem to generate the same sense of hipster common cause or grass-roots festivity," writes the anthology's co-editor, Aaron Jaffe, an English professor at the University of Louisville, in an e-mail. "There are many 'Star Trek'-type conventions, but they often seem a little too earnest in their devotions for the true zeitgeist dowsers. I'm not aware of any efforts to carnivalize 'Moby-Dick' or 'The Wire,' for that matter, and even James Joyce's 'Ulysses' is only celebrated once a year on Bloomsday.

". . . For film studies, it's a bit of an anomaly to have a 'film' by auteurs like Joel and Ethan Coen that's simultaneously a 'movie' that inspires such campy fan behavior in the vein of 'Rocky Horror Picture Show.' You know, modernism and postmodernism in one burrito."

Lebowski Fest was founded in Louisville in 2002 by two dudes in T-shirt retail, and since then they've brought it to other cities (Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, Seattle). Unfortunately, Washington, the second-to-last stop on an eight-city tour this year, will not be on next year's scaled-down docket, says fest co-founder Will Russell. He says he's pleased with Lebowski Fest D.C., though other frequent festgoers say the 100 people who came to bowl Tuesday night can't compare with the intense turnouts in other cities (thousands converge on Louisville from all points of the globe). But then again, it is a Tuesday and this is Bethesda.

Near the end of the night there's a costume contest, which Erin Yokel wins handily with her Marty the Landlord getup.

"This is the best trophy she's ever gotten," her father says. "It's sad to think she's only 26 and she's reached the pinnacle of her achievement. Although here's one way to look at it: She's won more awards for 'The Big Lebowski' than the Coen brothers did."

The fest ends around midnight and the faithful -- sufficiently buzzed on White Russians -- roll out of the lanes like the tumbleweed generation they've become, a generation forced into action by plenty of ins and outs and what-have-yous, symbolic of a . . . of a . . . well, I lost my train of thought here.

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