Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi in 'The Big Lebowski.' אי־פי

'Shomer Fucking Shabbos': How 'The Big Lebowski' Bummed Its Way Into Cult Status

‘The Big Lebowski’ has spawned countless memes, festivals and even a religion. A leader of the scene tells Haaretz how he stumbled upon The Dude, and what the film taught him about Judaism



The test of time isn’t really fair. Even films that audiences liked and critics praised don’t withstand a return viewing. In this regard, 20 years after its release, “The Big Lebowski” is considered a true anomaly: it’s become one of the great cult movies of its time, even though it drew unflattering reviews on its release and a had cool public reception. Its legacy, then, was hard to gauge. People said the plot was confused, that the film’s creators, the Coen brothers, were too clever for their own good and that the stars, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, were wasted on nebulous characters that go nowhere.

Last month, The Washington Post asked some of the leading critics who panned the movie in 1998 whether they had later changed their minds. Most of them admitted they had been completely off the mark. “The trouble starts with the plot,” Alex Ross wrote in Slate 20 years ago; his comment today reflects his change of mind: “I was afraid someone would dig this up!” Like many other critics, Ross couldn’t understand how the same people who had won Oscars just two years earlier for “Fargo” had come up with a movie lacking a coherent plot.

Writing in The New Yorker in 1998, Daphne Merkin observed, “The Coens can’t be bothered – or perhaps they don’t know how – to make a connection between what’s inside their smart-aleck heads and the plodding, sometimes painful world in which the rest of us live when we’re not at the movies.”

The Coen brothers had by then already made a few highly stylized comedies, but “Lebowski” drew new viewers who hadn’t taken any interest in “Fargo.” In the movie, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski falls victim to thugs who are actually looking for a different Jeffrey Lebowski. After one of the assailants urinates on the rug in his home, The Dude departs from his routine of bowling and idleness to seek out the other Lebowski and demand compensation. His world may be incredibly narrow, but our hero insists on getting justice in the form of a replacement rug. So an arbitrary event, which produced negligible damage – a wet rug – generates a chain of no less arbitrary events.

The setting is Los Angeles in a surrealistic version with musical trappings. But the plot was never the main thing for the fans. What attracted them was the collection of characters that gather around The Dude in the bowling alley. Besides his friends Walter and Donny, there’s an older rich man and his young missing wife, a gang of German nihilists and an unforgettable pedophile played by John Turturro. “Each time [the film] comes on TV, I think ‘Oh OK, I’ll just watch a few scenes. I’ll wait until [John] Turturro licks the bowling ball and then I’ll turn it off.’ But I never do,” Bridges told the Guardian newspaper a few years back.

“The Big Lebowski,” like its protagonists, is an unconventional film from every point of view, and its route to success was even more exceptional. Festivals are now held in every part of the world in which thousands of participants dress up like characters from the movie; internet memes, Facebook groups and sites of homage are essential elements of the scene. The film has even spawned a so-called religion, “Dudeism,” which boasts no fewer than 450,000 supposedly ordained priests. The Dude is manifestly a modern incarnation of Jesus, and the bottom line of the believers is the hero’s assertion of his credo at the end of the film: “The Dude abides.”

A quiet, smoky life

Greg Andrews

The film is a distinctive product of the 1990s in the sense that new viewers discovered it mainly through video and DVD. Some of them missed it in the movie theaters, others saw it but didn’t like it at the time. At home, though, in their spare time, possibly with a joint, they came to love it. The unusual success story goes hand in hand with the development of the internet and with the post-9/11 reality. The desire to live a quiet, smoky life in the face of a chaotic, arbitrary world only intensified amid the security and economic uncertainties of the 21st century. The internet, for its part, allowed the widely dispersed fans to unify forces around shared culture heroes. Will Russell, from Louisville, Kentucky, is an important member of the community of fans – and he himself got involved almost by accident.

“It started back in 2002, kind of as a joke,” Russell told Haaretz by phone. “A friend and me were vending at a tattoo convention and we were really bored. We started quoting lines from ‘The Big Lebowski.’ Back and forth. All of a sudden the guys in the next booth joined in with quotes of their own. We had this moment that we realized that we weren’t alone in our love – or some would say obsession – with this movie. It was a magical experience of bonding with complete strangers almost instantly. We started talking about the movie, sharing bits of trivia, and then we looked around at the convention. We we’re really out of our element. You could see someone suspending by their ass piercing.  We were kind of like: ‘this is weird. If they can pull off a weird tattoo convention like this, why can’t we pull off a ‘Big Lebowski’ convention?”

To cut costs, Russell and his buddies rented a bowling alley on the seamier side of Louisville. They hoped 20 people would show up, maybe 15. But that first event drew 150 fans, some of them dressed up as characters from the movie. They packed the place to bowl, take part in a trivia quiz and watch the movie, of course. “Just like that, Lebowski Fest was born,” Russell recalls.

A year later, he and his friends decided to repeat the experience, and at this stage the internet also kicked in. The popular magazine Spin learned about the festival through Russell’s website, and listed the Lebowski Fest as “one of the events you can’t afford to miss this summer.” “Suddenly it just blew up,” Russell says. “All the events we planned were sold out, and we brought our first special guest, Jeff Dowd, who’s the real life inspiration for The Dude.”

Since then, thanks to the web, the Lebowski Fest has become a trans-American phenomenon, moving from one city to another for the past 17 years. Attempts were made to replicate the festival in other countries, too, including at least one event that was held in Jerusalem in 2011. This year, the film’s 20th anniversary, the enthusiasm still hasn’t worn off: A large festival is planned for Los Angeles next month, ahead of the main event in Louisville in the summer.

Actually, the movie was an acquired taste even for Russell, who has since devoted almost two decades of his life to it. “It was only by the third time that I fell in love with it, that I was smitten by it. I started laughing and quoting the movie all the time,” he says, and offers an explanation: “One of the requirements of a cult movie is that initial commercial failure. This is also probably the first cult movie of the internet era, really.”

Shomer ducking Shabbos

In the eyes of the fans – and of the critics who roasted the film but later fell for it – viewers need to overcome the plot in order to connect with the characters and the snappy dialogue. The Dude, of course, is the great culture hero to emerge from the movie. One of his best-known lines has become a common web riposte: “Yeah, well, that’s just like, you know, your opinion, man.” In Israel, by contrast, you’re more likely to see T-shirts with John Goodman’s Walter character, emblazoned with another quote from the movie: “Shomer fucking Shabbos.”

Gramercy Pictures

Just as The Dude is a pacifist counterculture product of the 1960s, Walter is also a refugee from that decade – but of the other side. A Vietnam veteran, he believes that violence is a pretty good solution for most problems. He also became an observant Jew after his latest marriage, though he’s since been divorced. He talks a good deal about his religion throughout the film, mentioning Maimonides and even quoting Herzl in a conversation about bowling: “If you will it, Dude, it is no dream.”

There’s something seductive about Walter’s interpretation as a kind of metaphor for Israel. Some prefer to focus on his convert status, but in the end Walter is a Jew who’s undergone plenty of horrors in his life and is in a post-traumatic state. But he’s also prone to pull out a gun and to react to situations disproportionately. When The Dude chides him for living in the past, he erupts in fury, “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax – YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I’M LIVING IN THE FUCKING PAST!”

Asked for his take on this aspect of the movie, Russell notes that he lives in Kentucky, which is not known as a bastion of Zionism. “I learned some things about Judaism from the film. I wasn’t fully aware of what ‘shomer Shabbos’ meant. I’ve learned about Theodore Herzl. There are a lot of things I’ve learned from 'The Big Lebowski.' In terms of similarities between the character Walter and the State of Israel – I don’t if I’m really qualified to answer that.”

Nowadays, it’s easy to place “The Big Lebowski” on the 1990s nostalgia list, though in fact there are few cultural elements of the decade that people miss. The film did not become a cult movie in order to make a comeback as nostalgia. In the Washington Post article, Daphne Merkin offers an explanation for the fact that “The Big Lebowski” has drawn more and more fans across the years: “In some ways, the dude and his disconnected dudeness has a certain appeal now, maybe because the world has grown more horrendous or reality is less bearable than when the film was made. I still think it’s basically more of a guy’s flick, than a woman’s. And it probably helps to be stoned, which isn’t my particular drug. But I did see that it had its virtues.”

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