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Ten years later, ‘The Big Lebowski’ still abides

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Tom Esterline, right, has attended 10 Lebowski Fests as the Dude. To his left, a Walter look-alike. (Courtesy Tom Esterline)

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Competitors in a Dude look-alike contest at the 6th annual Lebowski Fest in Louisville, Ky. (Courtesy of Lebowski Fest)

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An "Achiever," as fans of "The Big Lebowski" call themselves, dressed as a character from a dream sequence. (Courtesy of Lebowski Fest)

Wearing the same Medina Sod T-shirt and dark glasses that Jeff Bridges wore in "The Big Lebowski," Carolyn Ives showed up at work last Halloween at the post office in Burlington, Vt., convinced her costume would be a big hit.

But, instead of seeing it as a paean to Ives' favorite film, the 1998 Coen brothers' cult classic "The Big Lebowski," people who’d come down to mail letters looked at Ives and thought she was just a blind postal worker.

In retrospect, said Ives, a 42-year-old mother of two, the costume was just "too subtle."

Joel and Ethan Coen may have just won four Academy Awards for "No Country for Old Men," but thousands of their longtime fans, like Ives, are busy celebrating another landmark in the filmmakers' career: the 10-year anniversary of "The Big Lebowski." The comedy, starring Bridges as a hapless stoner called "the Dude," won no major awards when it came out in March of 1998 and garnered a mere $17 million at the box office. But the film has since earned a cult status that rivals "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Lebowski devotees, who call themselves “Achievers,” will commemorate the film’s birthday, as they do every year, at the Lebowski Fest (the next one starts on March 7, in Chicago) with White Russians, bowling, trivia contests and a film screening. Those who can’t abide in person will reflect privately on what’s become a daily part of life. “The Big Lebowski is a philosophy to live by way more than a movie,” said Ives, who lives with her husband, Jon, and their two teenage daughters in a small house in Essex Town, Vt. “Every time the phone rings someone says, ‘Phone’s ringing, Dude.’ It’s just part of the language in our house.”

“The Big Lebowski” has had a slow but steady climb from quirky flop to first-rate obsession. First it was an oddball movie overshadowed by another Coen collaboration, the Oscar-winning “Fargo” released two years earlier. But over the next decade the Lebowski Fest focused attention on the movie, and today the festival travels around the world. A book by the festival owners published last year, “I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski,” has sold 45,000 copies, and the Dude and Walter action figures go for $34 apiece at places like Urban Outfitters.

“I think the popularity of ‘Lebowski’ really ties in with the unpopularity of the Bush administration,” said Erik Himmelsbach, a 43-year-old former producer and writer for VH1 who is working on a documentary about Achiever culture. “It’s kind of an alternative American dream in a way. There’s all this pressure to conform, to drive yourself crazy to be successful. The message of ‘Lebowski’ is that you don’t have to conform. You don’t have to be a lemming."

Himmelsbach said he thinks viewers admire the breezy approach of the film's protagonists, particularly the Dude. "If people aren’t living their lives like the Dude, I think a lot of people would love to," he said. "I think a lot of people would just love to get off the treadmill and just abide.”

Case in point: Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt. The old friends and former band mates, who refer to themselves as the Dudes, dreamed up Lebowski Fest in 2002. They were selling T-shirts at a tattoo convention in Louisville, Ky., and started trading lines with a couple of guys from the neighboring booth. “We realized that we were not alone in our obsession with this movie,” said Russell, who is now 31 and owns a T-shirt shop in Louisville. “In the midst of this weird tattoo convention we thought, ‘If they can have this tattoo convention, why can’t we have a Big Lebowski convention?’”

And so Russell and Shuffitt rented a bowling alley in Louisville “in the seedy part of town between strip clubs and liquor stores” and put up a small Web site, expecting a crowd of 20 friends. But 150 people came from as far as Buffalo and Tucson. The following year, thanks in part to a blurb in Stuff Magazine, attendance soared to 1,200.

Achievers at the festival hold court on the bowling lanes, in trivia matches and in costume contests. The latter is where, Russell said, the magic of the event comes to life. “The really truly creative costumes, the ones that usually win the trophies, are the ones that’ll come as an interpretation of a line of dialogue,” he said. “Last year, this guy came as ‘A world of pain.’ He spent like six months constructing this giant sphere that he could roll around the bowling alley that had a hammer and a hatchet kind of alternating and hitting him in his head.”

Tom Esterline always goes as the Dude. “I was born with a slight resemblance to Jeff Bridges,” said Esterline, who’s been to 10 Lebowski Fests, including in Edinburgh, Scotland, and London. And although he talks about “The Big Lebowski” with a certain nonchalance (“I’m not trying to be like the Dude; I’m my own Dude”), he admits to having seen it at least 100 times. “I go bowling a lot. I like to drive around. I have a ’73 Ford Grand Turino like the Dude does,” Esterline said. “I think I work too much, but I take a lot of vacations to make up it for it.” Indeed, he was speaking over the phone from Lakeland, Fla., where he was on vacation visiting his brother.

The movie “isn’t a religious thing” for him, he said. Esterline keeps going back to the festivals because he likes the intimate world the Achievers have created. “Why not?” he said. “If I was fat, I’d go as Walter.”

E-mail: mec2154@columbia.edu