Lebowski, The Big Retrospective: An Interview with Jeff "The Dude" Dowd
A strange thought occurred to me the other day. I've seen every so-called "cult" movie of my generation during its original theatrical run. Maybe even a couple of times a piece. I saw Evil Dead 2 three times over the course of its opening weekend (March 13th, opposite Raising Arizona). Why? Because Roger Ebert told me too. I took my dad, and he thought it was pretty goofy. But he enjoyed himself. I saw Donnie Darko at the Lemmle 5 on Sunset. I saw Napoleon Dynamite at the same theater. When I was three, I wandered into The Warriors somewhere in San Diego by myself. That sh*t scared me, and scarred me for life. My brother and I snuck into both Repo Man and Heathers while living in Corvallis, Oregon. Same with that weird Lone Ranger movie starring Christopher Lloyd (damn it, where's the DVD?). If it was slightly askew and it came out between 1975 and 2005, I probably saw it on the big screen. What's so weird about that, and what all of these films have in common is, they never really found an audience, or made a substantial amount of money upon first impact. That's why they call it a cult movie. Not many people paid for a ticket, only later discovering these films at the video store or on cable.
Me, personally? I like crap. And any "out of the norm" picture is automatically put on my must see list. That's pretty much why nothing has ever escaped me. I've never had to fain oblivious when it comes to a so-called cult film. And usually, when it comes to these types of entertainments, I can tell right away that it's going to take on a life of its own years after its theatrical release. Except for one film, and that was The Big Lebowski.
Movie PictureNot because I didn't see it on opening weekend. I did. Three times before it left the multiplex as a matter of fact. Thing is, I misunderstood this film's cult status because I thought it was a hit. I was under the misunderstanding that quite a few people saw this and loved it upon its initial release. At the time, I was living in Portland, Oregon. And it seems like everyone I knew was quoting the film before it ever hit video. I'd go to that weird Chinese Restaurant/Karaoke Bar on Burnside, and more than half the bar was compulsively ordering White Russians. Because it was the thing to do. I've never known a time when this film wasn't popular. At least with my crowd. Some films have to earn their cult status. This thing tanged out of the box. Sure, it took a while for it to catch on World Wide, but since day one; it was a favorite with just about everyone I knew.
Not only that, it was one of the first films ever released on DVD. The medium was being utilized by film buffs tired of flipping their laser discs over. The Big Lebowski came as a favorable companion to those brand new versatile players. It was a great movie amongst a myriad of crap. Back then, there were only a handful of titles too chose from. I'm betting that 98% of DVD owners today have this film in their personal library.
This Tuesday, Universal is releasing a special edition DVD for the Big Lebowski. And, quite honestly, I can't tell you to run out and double dip the disc if you already own the version released by Polygram back in 1999. Why? Because there's not much of a difference between the two seperate copies (with the exception of the cover; I like the original better). The print looks as immaculate as it always has. Because it was digitally preserved early in its career. And the special features are pretty much the same, except for one glaring non-treat. The 30-minute behind the scenes featurette with the Coen brothers hasn't been changed a bit. Neither have the production notes. But there are some cool black & white photos taken by Jeff Bridges on the set that weren't available that first go-around. I'm not sure where, but I had seen most of these before. The real capper and the most substantial thing to note is a new little three minute piece entitled Mortimer Young's Exclusive Introduction. Yikes.
This thing is pretty awful. I'm not sure if the Coen Brothers had anything to do with it. It reeks like someone trying to riff on the Coen vibe, but it doesn't work. It actually reminds me of a missing scene from the Mr. Show movie Run Ronnie, Run. It has Mortimer Young, an obviously fictitious film historian, waxing poetically about the restoration of this "lost classic." It's not really very funny. It's kind of annoying, and it automatically plays when you start the movie. The only way to skip it is to go directly to the chapter menu. It's like a cancerous growth on an otherwise smooth, beautiful baby. It's unnecessary.
If you don't already own the movie, I can't recommend picking this new DVD up enough, though. I mean, it's the Big Lebowski. Just because they stuck some dumb introduction on there doesn't mean you won't enjoy the actual film itself. And that's what it's all about. The film. Seriously. Why don't you own this already? That's blasphemy. I kind of understand why they didn't go balls out with a bunch of new features on this stand alone disc. Universal knows most people aren't going to buy it again. That's why they're also releasing something you Lebowski fanatics are going to want to pick up. It's called The Big Lebowski: The Achiever's Edition. Now this is where it's at. This is what you need to spend your money on. You might not splurge if the Special Features on the stand alone disc were an improvement on what has already been offered. It doesn't matter, now. Sure, this boasts the same exact disc, but you get a lot of cool sh*t with this edition. You know this is where you need to put your money. You get actual Jeff Bridges Prints from the set. Drink Coasters. And a Bowler's Towel. And it's only going to cost you about twenty-five dollars from Best Buy on the Tuesday it comes out. You know you want it. Splurge. It's worth it. Like I said, just re-buying the single disc itself is pointless.
Watching the movie again, I realized how great a piece of pulp culture it really is. Every single line of dialogue is quotable. And every single time I watch it, I discover something new and funny I missed from the last time I saw it. For some reason, this time around, I really thought the off-handed line about Nancy Reagan was too funny. I don't remember ever having laughed at that before. The movie is just so detailed and intricate; it takes about fifty viewings to catch every little nuance. The Big Lebowski is more of a Classic than it is a Cult masterpiece. Its pedigree is a little sharper.
Even though this thing came close on the heels of the Coen's award winning Fargo, the movie isn't so much a follow-up as the beginning of their second career. Everything leading up to Fargo had a far more serious approach to it. Everything after Lebowski has taken the Dude esthetic and twisted it to new lengths. This thing here is more a continuation of what they started with Raising Arizona, and then seemed to abandon for a good stretch of years.
I personally love The Big Lebowski. And I'm grateful to have the DVD in my collection, Collector's Edition or otherwise. To commemorate the release, I was recently invited to interview the real "dude", Jeff Dowd, upon which the Coen's based Jeff Bridge's character on. Here's that interview in full. Enjoy...
"B. Alan Orange interviews The Dude!"
Jeff "The Dude" Dowd: Hi, B. Alan. Where are you today?
Where am I? I'm sitting outside the Highland Grounds on Highland Avenue, inside my car.
The Dude: Oh, right here in Hollywood? In LA?
Right. Where are you? You're on Melrose, right?
The Dude: No, I'm in Santa Monica.
Oh, cool...Well, my first question is...I'm sure everybody has been talking to you about the Big Lebowski DVD. I kind of want to take this in another direction. What are your thoughts on the impending Bird Flu, and your opinion on the way Bush is handling it?
Universal Rep: Why do we want to go there?
The Dude: That's a good curve ball.
Universal Rep: I thought we were keeping this to Lebowski and everything?
Movie PictureThat's okay. I have those questions too. I was just looking at your website, and it says that you like to talk about politics and current affairs.
Universal Rep: Are you okay with that, Jeff?
The Dude: Yeah...But I don't really have an answer. (Laughs) First of all, I am a little bit concerned about the Bird Flu. And, uh...I hope some other people are handling it other than George Bush. You know, in terms of the way his administration has handled some other things. I'm not sure those are the most competent people in the world. Unfortunately, based on some recent events, I'm going to have to say I hope they're a little bit more competent in the way they handle this one. Yeah. That's my answer to that one.
Okay. Well, I'll go into the movie. What I want to know is; what goes on at these Lebowski Fests? And what can we expect from the one coming up in New York in just a few days?
The Dude: Well, the first part is, anybody that is interested should look at their website, which is www.lebowskifest.com. And just look at all the pictures from the past ones. I was first invited to go a couple of years ago, and I was like, "I don't think so." It smelled to me like that William Shatner Saturday Night Live skit with the Trekkies. You Know? Get a life. But I was convinced by these two guys, Scott and Will, to go. I went, and to my utter surprise, it was a really cool group of people that go to these things. The people that go, and by the way, they come from 38 states, which is weird, are cool. There are a lot of them. At the last one, They Might Be Giants were playing. They gave me the key to the city. The people that come are people that want to party. That's the kind of people that are going to be there. The people that come are really cool. They get Joel and Ethan's sense of irony. And their sense of humor. And they like to party. They're much better drinkers and partiers than they are bowlers. Okay? These are not the great bowlers of the world. Nor am I. But, the first night they have a music venue. Jeff Bridges came to the one in LA. And he played. And then they showed the movie. There's a lot of drinking, and boogieing, and watching the movie. Which is a lot of fun. It's what a lot of people do. They mouth the lines together, and stuff like that. The second night is when they all go to the bowling alley. And to me, that is a really interesting experience. All of these people come in costume. Not just the Walters, and the Maudes, and the Dudes. There's the Jesuses. God, I love the Jesuses. But these people in costume have a physical act. They're bowling. And they do things. But they come as lines of the movie. So there'd be guys there, like this one guy. He's dressed in fatigues, and I say, "Who are you?" He says, "I'm the guy that died face down in the muck, in Nam." Another guy was dressed up in a Dodgers uniform with Kaufax on the back, and another guy with a beard, and a staff, and a tablet...and he's Moses. That line comes from "A great tradition from Moses to Sandy Kaufax." It's just, line after line. Some incredibly inventive stuff. These people are incredibly inventive. And people drink a lot. And they bowl. The average score is about 104. Or 87, or 122. They play music, and it's really a lot of fun.
Are you planning on being at the one in New York?
The Dude: It's kind of a fun gathering. It's an extension of why people like to get together in their living room with two or three friends and watch the movie together. All of a sudden, you've made a bunch of new friends. That's what its like.
What are your thoughts on the movie some 8 years after it's come out now?
The Dude: Eight, eh? It's obviously not Close Encounters. But it is a phenomenon. Which a lot of people never expected. You know? It's...Its...Very, very...I contribute the fact that people really like the movie to it being so interactive. They mouth lines, just like you could with Austin Powers. It's a guarantee that you're going to have fun while watching it. Which you don't always know. Its also one of those movies you can watch with friends. And you can have fun watching it together. That's to say that you might not want to watch Blade Runner, or one of the more event type movies on a big screen. But the Big Lebowski promises to deliver a lot of fun. In today's world, where there's so much to be bummed about, where there's a hurricane, or a potential Bird Flu, or an on-going War...Or even a hard day at work...This is a chance to know you're going to have some fun for a while. Which is the same reason some people have a cocktail after work. Or they have a recreational drink, or people take mood-enhancing drugs. Because you don't feel good, and you want to feel better. And a lot of the other alternatives have a lot worse side effects than watching the Big Lebowski, you know? I think that's one aspect of the film. The other is that it's like a really good album. It has about fifteen great songs, and sequences that work within themselves. You can channel surf into it. After not having seen it for a couple of years. You sit there and say, "Oh, wow, this is actually very good." Jeff Bridges and I were talking, and he had the same experience. He hadn't seen it for a while. He started channel surfing, stopped on it, and said, "Wow, this is actually pretty good." Usually, an actor will get critical of their performance. He didn't have time to do that. Okay? Even the guys that are in it watch it. Anyhow, I think that's part of the phenomenon. That's why people love it so much...It guarantees a good time. An extreme example is, if you go on my website, which is www.jeffdowd.com; there's a piece on there that talks about the article from the New York Times. The guy had post-traumatic stress syndrome. He tried pills, and some other stuff, and nothing worked. Then one day he saw a copy of the Big Lebowski on the shelf, and he put it in. For the first time in months, he started laughing again. He said, "Oh, my god. This is working to cure me." That's an extreme example. It brought him out of his shell. That's a pretty good thing for a movie that's been around. It works in parts, you know?
What is your relationship with Jeff Bridges like?
The Dude: Me and him run into each other in places. I saw him a few weeks ago up in Toronto. We'll hang, have a couple of drinks. We talk. Maybe, someday, we'll do something together if the right script comes along. Yeah. We get along. We hang.
That's good to hear. Can you tell me a little bit about the Documentary that is being done about you?
The Dude: We shot a whole bunch of it, but not so much now. I don't want to say it's on hold, but its not being shot so much right now. The guy has to figure out what he's doing next with it. What's more happening is the book I'm almost finished writing called "The Dude Abides." Which the documentary may become a companion piece too. The book is really good. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. For about a half a century. I experienced a lot. I was around a lot of very interesting people at a very interesting time. When political history was changing. I was there when Sundance was first starting. I have a chapter about that which is very, very funny. But, it's also inspiring. There's a lot of political stuff from the Sixties. Like working with research groups at the University of Washington. I was 17, living in Europe, and by chance I hooked up with the Rolling Stones. I went raveling around with them. There's a great story there. I mean; Mick Jagger is only 22. And it's interesting that he's still rocking now, and looking like he does. But then, these guys were really young guys. It was there first European tour. We were basically kids. And then there's the work I did on the John Kerry movie "Going Up River". Which had some residence for me, because when I was 17, my best friends were Marines. And they joined the Marines to go to Vietnam. And I was going to do that too, until I heard back from them. They told me what was wrong with the war. Parenthetically, none of their younger brothers went. And they were all ready to go. With this Kerry movie, in which Kerry joins up to go to Vietnam, and then he has misgivings about the war, and like so many Americans, he came back and joined the Anti-War movement. And he had to face the veterans, which was the toughest of things to do. He had to face these people that lost friends and family. He took a lot of shit for that. And I could relate to that on a very personal level. It happened to a lot of my friends, too. But that's part of the reason I got into the Anti-War movement. The continuity with that is something I talk a lot about in the book. I think the book will be very inspiring for a whole generation of people that want to deal with their friends. My friends and I got together and did things. There's a lot of musical stuff in there, too. There's a whole chapter on Neil Young. I lived with him the last couple of years. I got some good stories out of that. There's a whole great story about being at Woodstock.
I'll ask you one last question. How close does the movie get to the real living person of you?
The Dude: The mannerisms are extremely close. Jeff nailed that entirely. The clothes are pretty close. In the original script for the Big Lebowski, there's a line that describes him as "casualness runs deep." That would be very true. In terms of the story, not very much. I mean; it's very based on my personality during the 70s. It's as if they froze me in time. I drank White Russians for a while. Yes, I was part of the Seattle Seven. I didn't join in on the "Poor Hero" Statement. I wasn't that old. I was very much a part of society. And I was the road manager for Metallica. Ironically, I ended up helping out on their movie "Some Kind of Monster." That was a wonderful movie. And I got to know the guys. But speaking truthfully, they created a character by taking another kind of character. Then they added Walter, and it became a buddy movie. Walter is always getting the Dude in trouble. It's just like in any movie. All the other characters are created. The Donnys and the Jesuses. All these guys. Then they took a rather standard Raymond Chandler set-up. And then they doused it with laughs, and put it in LA. Joel and Ethan are mixing characterizations and genres together in a way that they so often do, so well. Whether it's in Miller's Crossing, which is a much more serious movie, or if it's in the Big Lebowski. They use the Raymond Chandler format, which they put comedic characters in. I think that answers the question.
And that's the end. I hope you enjoyed this look back at a truly classic film. If you don't already own it, be sure to run out and purchase the new DVD. It's a keeper. Your best bet is to buy the Achiever's Edition. That sh*t is pretty damn cool.
Now get out of here!
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The Big Lebowski special edition releases come to DVD October 18th.
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