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15 Thoughts on the Fifteenth Anniversary of The Big Lebowski

When The Big Lebowski premiered in 1998 as Joel and Ethan’s first film after their critically beloved Fargo, it was not a blockbuster. It cost twice as much to make as Fargo and made a quarter less. Over the past fifteen years, though, it’s grown a loyal underground following. At age 13 in 1998, I was an early adopter (or, I should say, early Achiever, or Lebowski fan). It’s an honor and a pleasure to get to reminisce about my favorite movie a decade and a half after its release. Here are fifteen thoughts, large and small, on the occasion.

1. The Big Lebowski is a period movie about the early nineties, made in the late nineties. The Dude’s pager and Sony Walkman evoke a precise moment in history. The soundtrack evokes the sixties and seventies. My memory of watching the movie for the first time, though, was very 1998. It was the year I celebrated my bar mitzvah, and I needed a note from my parents so I could rent an R-rated film from the Blockbuster Video across the street from where I lived.

2. The Big Lebowski gave me my first false sense of intellectual superiority. In high school, I’d take any opportunity to throw around the term nihilist, with the simplistic understanding that it referred to someone who believes in nothing. I was also quick to inject the word nomenclature into any discussion of race. That one I was able to ride all the way to a liberal-arts degree.

3. My friend Dan once got in major trouble for trying John Goodman’s “I’m calmer than you are” tactic during an argument with his mother. He was indeed the calmer of the two. Unfortunately, talking quietly while driving your mom berserk doesn’t stop her from grounding you.

4. Philip Seymour Hoffman has four Oscar nominations (one win) after Lebowski, none before. Julianne Moore has four nominations from 1998 onward, and zero prior to 1998. Steve Buscemi has been nominated for four Golden Globes (one win) all since Lebowski. Just saying.

5. Although Seth MacFarlane omitted this fact from his “We Saw Your Boobs” Oscar bit, we definitely saw four-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore’s boobs. Like, we paused the VHS and saw them all blurry and shaky because we were teenagers. (Anyone younger than 20 may not be aware of this practice, now that the Internet exists primarily for this purpose.)

6. Along with Wet Hot American Summer and The Room, Lebowski belongs in the canon of nouveau cult classics. It’s probably the largest cult film of the past twenty years that’s loved in a non-ironic/non-camp way. In fact, its underground status has gained so much momentum that it arguably crossed into the mainstream. Ten years ago, dropping a sly Lebowski quote in conversation would go over the head of most of my acquaintances. Now you can hardly mention that a decoration ties a room together without getting a knowing wink in return.

7. An unnerving number of women I’ve dated have told me of their secret attraction to Steve Buscemi. Truly, 1996–2001 was the golden age of Buscemi. He starred in Fargo, Lebowski, and Ghost World. He hosted Saturday Night Live. He even voiced the villain in the animated classic Monsters Inc. Still, he played a naïve bowler, a jaded record collector, and two ruthless, conniving monsters (one in the flesh, the other computer-generated). I really need to rethink the type of woman I allow myself to get close to.

8. Lebowskifest, which started as Louisville’s celebration of all things Lebowski, has run for eleven years and has spun off fests in a dozen other cities including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Edinburgh, Scotland. My friends and I road-tripped to the third and fourth annual Louisville Lebowskifests and won awards for our group costumes (Marty the landlord’s dance quintet, the Fuckin’ Eagles) each year. Photographic evidence exists online, but I am certainly not going to link you to it.

9. My childhood friends and I would have been featured in The Achievers: The Story of the Big Lebowski Fans, but I never signed the release form we received from the producers. I am both proud and ashamed of this fact.

10. The Big Lebowski’s soundtrack has had as much of an influence on me as the film itself. My favorite Bob Dylan song is “The Man in Me,” which plays over the movie’s opening credits as well as during the first dream sequence. That’s an opinion probably shared by several Achievers and few other human beings. I love Creedence Clearwater Revival (though their music didn’t make it onto the CD soundtrack compilation, which I owned, of course), and I hate the Eagles.

11. A commonly cited but still unbelievable bit of Lebowski trivia is that the Dude never bowls onscreen. The close reader in me wants to take it as a comment on the film’s theme of people not being who they seem. The real Big Lebowski is not as wealthy as he pretends to be. The menacing nihilists are a collection of German porn actors and misfits. The Dude, who attaches his identity to his bowling league, never rolls a ball. The Big Lebowski fan in me just says: “Far out, man. Far out.”

12. The substitution of “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!” for “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” in basic cable airings of The Big Lebowski is an all-time great curse word dubbing, right up there with “Yippee ki yay, melon farmer!”

13. In 2011, Tara Reid mistakenly indicated she was preparing for a role in a Big Lebowski sequel, a movie that was never even scripted. Though the news of the non-sequel was a bummer, it did birth this funny, self-deprecating Funny or Die short starring Tara Reid in every role and the inimitable voice talent of James Adomian doing a dead-on Sam Elliott.

14. Walter Sobchak’s refusal to bowl or drive a car on Shabbos prepared me for my college experience at Brandeis, where the observant Jews were infinitely more numerous and vocal than the ones I grew up around (my grandfather).

15. White Russians, the Dude’s drink of choice, provide a smooth transition from milk shakes to booze for any enterprising high-school students, not that I bore witness to any such shenanigans.

Josh Gondelman is the co-author of @SeinfeldToday and recaps Community for Vulture.

Photo: Gramercy Pictures