It all began at a tattoo expo in July of 2002. Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell were attempting to sell t-shirts and to pass the time they began exchanging quotes from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski. From this emerged a daring idea: a convention celebrating all the wonder and strangeness of the film. By Shuffitt’s own admission, they only expected maybe 50 people to show up to the bowling alley they had rented, but the turnout was somewhere around 120. Encouraged, they did it again the next year. And the next. And so on until last weekend, when they threw the 11th annual Lebowski Fest.
Traditionally, the festival starts with the Movie Party at the lawn of Executive Strike & Spare, which hosts the event. Experimental band Mesiko, founded by former Louisvillian Ray Rizzo, opened the night (a full account of their performance by Jyn Yates can be found here). I arrived towards the end of their set, just in time to hear the welcoming remarks by Shuffitt and Russell – who strutted onto the stage in bowling pin outfits to thank the sponsors and introduce the evening’s main entertainment: Mucca Pazza.
The Chicago musical group describes itself as a “circus punk marching band,” and I don’t think a more fitting description could be coined. It boasts somewhere between 20 to 30 members whose instrumentation includes a percussion section, trumpets, saxophones, a tuba, violin, guitar, and accordion, among others – even three cheerleaders. More than just a band, they are performers; each member wore a marching band uniform, and they shook and swayed and danced with the music, even occasionally leaving the stage to surge the crowd and play from amongst the masses. Other highlights included a truly heartbreaking violin solo and a guest performance by six members of the Louisville Leopard Percussionists.
Thankfully, humidity was low and there was a cool breeze that night, which made for perfect conditions for an outdoor screening of The Big Lebowski following Mucca Pazza. I had not seen the movie in years, and one forgets how wonderfully strange it is. The film tells the story of the slacker known as The Dude (Jeff Bridges) who just wants to float through life, drink White Russians, and bowl with his friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), but due to a case of mistaken identity, he finds himself entangled in a plot involving kidnapping, ransom, auto theft, severed toes, and the enigmatically sexual Maude Lebowski. Witty dialog and bizarre dream sequences abound, reminding the viewer exactly what makes this film great enough to warrant its own yearly celebration.