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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 12:31 pm

The Lebowski Experience

Springfield event celebrates Coen brothers’ cult film

Khara Koffel as a Nihilist and Eric Berg as Walter Sobchak at 2008’s event.
Khara Koffel as a Nihilist and Eric Berg as Walter Sobchak at 2008’s event.
Matt Rawlings, Alicia Rawlings, Tom Garrett and Doris Garrett prepare for the trivia competition at The Lebowski Experience 2008.

A decade before taking the stage at the Kodak Theater to accept Oscars for Best Writing, Best Directing, and Best Picture for No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen were making a different kind of movie.

A movie about Jeffrey Lebowski, a pot-smoking Los Angelino whose favorite rug is stolen by thugs that mistake him for a well-known millionaire. Lebowski, or “The Dude” as he prefers, embarks on a journey to recover his rug by delivering a ransom for the other Lebowski’s trophy wife. The Dude is joined by his bowling partner, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), who manages to complicate things further and receive threats from a group of Nihilists. But The Dude needs his rug. It really tied the room together.

As one might guess, The Big Lebowski is not your normal film, and does not have normal fans. In fact, a cult following akin to that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show has emerged in recent years. Lebowski fans are often obsessed, dressing in costume, memorizing every line and filling their brains with Lebowski trivia. (The word “Dude” is repeated 160 times in the movie, while another four-letter word appears 292 times.)

Mindy Bockewitz and Amanda Wiggers, both of Springfield, are two of five self-appointed Lebowski Committee members. Their group’s one and only task is to plan and host The Lebowski Experience, which is set for Jan. 31 at Strike N Spare West in Springfield.

Bockewitz says the second annual event took almost four months to plan. The idea, she explains, spawned out of a bigger gathering. “My husband and a friend were going to something called Lebowskifest in Louisville, and we realized it was a long way for fans to travel,” she says. “So we decided to have our own party.”

They did, and 100 people from across central Illinois came for a night filled with Big Lebowski related activities, from unlimited bowling, to cheap White Russians (The Dude’s preferred beverage).

At this year’s Lebowski Experience, the movie will be projected on two screens, followed by a costume contest, a rug-rolling challenge, trivia, karaoke and live music from a band called Bük. Wiggers describes Bük as a cover band, which probably means there will be plenty of Creedence, dude.

Bockewitz says that her group doesn’t turn a profit. The event costs $15.69 in advance, which covers unlimited bowling, shoe rental and overhead costs. The $.69 is an homage to The Dude’s milk purchase in the movie’s first scene. Admission will rise to $20 at the door and online registration is strongly encouraged. Event t-shirts are available for an extra $8.

Wiggers and Bockewitz both cite the costume contest as their favorite part of The Lebowski Experience because fans go to great lengths to create unusual movie-related outfits. One participant grew a full beard last year, and Wiggers spent 15 hours on her own costume this time around — a Folgers can with a blue lid, which fans will recognize as an unconventional urn.

The year’s activities will include a special reading of one character’s eulogy, with the committee enlisting a fan dressed as Walter to recite the tribute.

The movie’s popularity is a bit hard to explain, but Bockewitz says its quotability and quirkiness probably increase the uncanny appeal. “Why is Seinfeld so popular? It’s a show about nothing,” she says. “This is a movie about weird people doing weird things, and every time I watch it I notice something I didn’t notice before.”

Wiggers agrees, saying “You can watch it a hundred times and not get tired of it.” The audience is vast, she says, adding that last year’s event attracted teenagers and baby-boomers. The rules of bowling are simple: no Pomeranians, and if your toe goes over the line, you’re entering a world of pain.

The Lebowski Experience is Jan. 31, from 1 p.m. until closing. Online registration is available at http://thelebowskiexperience.com. The movie runs 117 minutes and is rated R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence.

Zach Baliva is a filmmaker currently living in Springfield

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