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Bowling With 'The Dude'

Towards the very end of “The Big Lebowski,” the Stranger -- an old-fashioned cowboy played by Sam Elliot who narrates the movie -- tells the audience that he'll "catch ya later on down the trail."

At the time, it seemed like a quant finale to, as Roger Ebert put it in his 1998 Chicago Su- Times review, "a genial, shambling comedy."

Well, way down the trail, the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to the Oscar winning “Fargo” has gone from a shambles to a sensation. Certainly with Lebowski Fest 2009 about to kick off on Thursday in Los Angeles and travel to 15 other cities this year, the Gods, Stetson wearing or not, seem well pleased.

There’ll be a party and a screening of the movie at at 8 p.m. at the Wiltern Theater on Wilshire on May 7, and pins will be falling at pick-up games at the sleek lanes of Cal-Bowl in Lakewood on May 8. Tickets are still available at the official site.

"The first night we watch the movie, the second night we become the movie,” says Will Russell, who co-founded Lebowski Fest with Scott Shuffit in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2002. “It's madness, it's a costume contest, and it is a really good party."

While there was no Lebowski Fest in L.A. for the film’s 10th anniversary last year, it is fitting that the Speed of Sound 2009 tour, as the organizers are calling it, is beginning in the town that is as much a character in the movie as it is the backdrop.

Drawing from the gumshoe insights of Raymond Chandler that soiled rug, and a harshly articulated case of mistaken identity, “Lebowski” is a scathing satire of 1990 America. It is a summation of what happens when you tempt the wraths.

From the Boomers, Vietnam, the conservative backlash, the mainstreaming of porn and the other dark undercurrents coming to the surface, it was telling of the cultural depths the nation was about to hit. Throw in one Iraqi dictator, a metropolis without a center, numbskull nihilists, the downtown Art crowd and look out, cause, as the Dude – played by Jeff Bridges in the film -- would say, “Careful, man, there's a beverage here!” (The Dude tells how he became the Dude; see accompanying blog.)

In an age when the accoutrements foster the event -- like how the Dude's infamous rug made the room -- Lebowski Fest is proving a sturdy little industry of its own. There are Lebowski tees, hoodies and bowling shirts, Lebowski bobble heads, limited edition Lebowski posters by the likes of Shepard Fairly and, as one would expect from a late bloomer, specially packaged and anniversary edition DVD releases -- one of which comes in a bowling ball.

There’s even a guide to all things Dude with “I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski,” authored by Fest founders Will Russell and Scott Shuffit.

It's all very different from when The Big Lebowski came out. The general consensus back then was that while the Coens hadn’t lost their touch, they’d certainly lost a lot of their audience.

That lost me, cause I loved “Lebowski” then, and I love it even more now. Like an Eagles tune – sorry, “Lebowski” purists -- I find not only does it draw you in but actually both grows on you and reveals new layers with repeated viewings.

I remember watching the film for the first time in Toronto and thinking the Dude was Bill Clinton without the ambition or Hillary. Then again, I also thought that the Coens, with their use of "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)" had actually begun the career resurrection of Kenny Rogers.

Over a decade later, I perhaps foolishly remain more convinced of the former and vaguely hopeful of the latter.

Whether those cultural hopes and dreams have anything to do with Lebowski Fest hitting L.A., then Louisville, Seattle, San Diego, Vegas, Chicago, Toronto, Philly, NYC and more this year, I don’t know. I do know, however, that based on past Fests, you can expect some surprises.

Postmodern Southern Rock superstars My Morning Jacket dressed up as characters from the movie and played Louisville in 2004. Of course, that and other celebrity appearances over the years, including secret visits by directors Joel and Ethan Coen, paled to the cruise-by of the Dude himself.

In 2005 Bridges showed up to grace the gathering of loyal abiding fans in L.A. By all accounts, the affable actor was extremely Dudish in real life. He also had, among other noteworthy traits still spoken of in semi-hushed tones by “Lebowski” loyalists -- a very nice beach shirt fittingly depicting the state of California.

This year in L.A., Jeff Dowd, the independent film producer who the Dude is widely known to be somewhat based on, will be making an appearance. Joining him at the Wiltern will be cast members Jon Polito, Philip Moon and Mark Pellegrino, who played the Treehorn thugs, among others.

Bridges will also be back -- kinda. "Jeff did a greeting video for us to play before the movie," promises organizer Russell of the star who is currently up in Vancouver shooting “Tron 2.” "He's wearing the Dude sweater, drinking a White Russian, and I know the fans will love it.”

They already do. For the Dude will never die, the Dude always abides.

From Presidential politics, celebrity culture & Hollywood, microeconomics, rock 'n' roll, the NoBrow tabloid obsessions of modern America & a touch of everything else in-between, Dominic Patten almost never doesn't have a TKO opinion on something. He's also TheWrap's "L.A. Noir" columnist. Check out more of Patten’s work here.