Eddie Chung, a former philosophy student who is accustomed to pondering life’s deepest mysteries, is still stumped by something that shapes lives by the thousands: Why has “The Big Lebowski” become the most popular and all-consuming cult film since “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”?
“I don’t think,” said Chung, a 38-year-old Southland filmmaker, “that’s an answerable question. It’s like asking, ‘Why did Britney Spears become popular?’ ”
Maybe so. But as with Spears, the 1998 Coen brothers film is now an undeniable pop-cult force: For many it is a way of life. The mystery of the film’s resonance is something Chung has pondered for five years now, since he walked into a Lebowski Fest in Las Vegas in 2004.
He and a friend arrived a bit early, and Chung began to wonder if the celebration was for real. “By then, there was no proof that anyone was gonna show up for this.”
But they did: The event -- a bout of bowling, trivia and white Russian consumption following the kind of screening in which audiences talk back to the screen -- drew nearly 1,000 people and sent Chung on a journey from which he’s only just now emerging.
“The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans,” Chung’s documentary on this cinematic subculture, will play at the Laemmle Sunset 5 tonight through Saturday. This comes in the middle of a two-month tour of Lebowski Fests that included two nights in San Diego earlier this week.
As one of the festival founders says in “The Achievers”: “It’s all of my nerdiest dreams come true.”
It seemed an unlikely candidate for immortality. When “The Big Lebowski” opened in 1998, the Coen brothers, fresh off the success of the Oscar-winning “Fargo,” were among the hottest filmmakers in America, and expectations were high.
The movie, though, ended up with mixed reviews and only six weeks in theaters. It didn’t exactly bomb -- Roger Ebert called it “a genial, shambling comedy about a human train wreck” (by which he means the SoCal slacker played by Jeff Bridges). Though “Lebowski” has since been critically reevaluated and is now considered among the filmmakers’ best, at the time, even Coen fans were puzzled by the movie’s tossed-off plot and string of non sequiturs, and the film barely made back its budget.
The movie is a tangled tale of mistaken identity between Bridges’ the Dude -- who lives for white Russian-fueled bowling sessions with his oddball friends -- and a powerful man with whom he shares a name (Jeffrey Lebowski) and little else.
Among those confused by the whole thing was Chung, who remembers seeing the film soon after it came out. “I saw the movie in Boise, Idaho,” he recalls. “And I was the only one in the theater.”
But as with other films that have had greater success in their post-theater afterlife, “Office Space,” say, “Lebowski” steadily developed cult status, and when Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell -- two Gen X creative types in Louisville, Ky., -- came up with the idea for a Lebowski Fest in a local bowling alley in 2002, they expected a one-off party with a few friends.
But that celebration unleashed something powerful that no one quite knew the world was ready for. A few years later, 4,000 people were coming to the fest, which by then included the band My Morning Jacket dressed as the film’s characters.
The Internet -- and legions of dedicated “achievers,” as they call themselves in ironic reference to the Dude’s lack of ambition -- did the rest.
By 2004, when Chung, then an L.A.-based assistant to photographer David LaChapelle, entered the picture, the movement was rapidly picking up speed, having moved beyond Kentucky to a Vegas fest that drew international visitors.
Chung expected to see a modest gathering he might document as a short. “I had no idea,” he recalls of his visit, suggested offhandedly by a friend, “that I was going to devote the next five years of my life to this.”
“The Achievers” itself is raw and loose: Chung says he was inspired in part by the “episodic” nature of “The Big Lebowski,” which is a kind term for a movie that seemed to be pieced together from four separate films.
The hardest thing about making the documentary -- which required, among other things, negotiating with Universal for rights to “Lebowski” footage -- was “moving back in with my parents in my mid-30s,” Chung says of his financial sacrifice.
“The Achievers” resembles “The King of Kong,” a 2007 documentary about the rivalry between two Donkey Kong champions. Chung admires that film, as well as “Trekkies” and the work of the Mayles brothers, known for “Salesman” and “Grey Gardens.”
Rather than collect perspectives from outside sources -- film critics, scholars of subculture or fandom -- “The Achievers” stays almost entirely with a core of die-hards.
It may make the film a bit insular but it also immerses the viewer in the world of Lebowski heads. Many of them -- with their elaborate costumes, stressing out over movie trivia and fast bonds to other fest-goers -- seem so obsessively single-minded it’s hard not to wonder if they have much else going on in their lives.
Chung doesn’t think they’re that pathetic. “It says more about the power of ‘Lebowski’ than any neediness on the parts of the fans,” he says. “I went to a lot of their houses, and they had pretty healthy social networks. They let it out in the festival and then go back to their ordinary lives.”
Which comes back to the essential question: Why this film? If fans are looking for first-rate casts falling into twisted pictures that create their own reality, why not the Coens’ even weirder “The Hudsucker Proxy” or David O. Russell’s “I (Heart) Huckabees” or Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko”?
To festival co-founder Will Russell, reached on a bus between fests in Seattle and Portland, it comes down to bowling. “I think bowling has a lot to do with tying the fest together.” But he doesn’t want the brilliance of the Coens’ film overlooked. “It’s an amazing, quotable movie that gets better every time you watch it. I’ve seen it over 100 times and I’ll never get sick of it. I don’t know how they did that.” (Russell is also co-author of the related 2007 book “I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski.”)
If Chung has to speculate, he’ll bet it’s the dialogue among characters like the Dude, Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), which is quoted constantly at fests. “Generally, films have dialogue to support the plot,” Chung says. “This one has a plot to support the dialogue.”
The subculture’s energy surely comes from the film’s initially marginal status in the Coens’ body of work.
“A cult gives its members license to feel superior to the rest of the universe,” film critic David Edelstein wrote on the Lebowski phenomenon, “and so does a cult movie: it confers hipness on those who grok what the mainstream audience can’t.”
The ardor of Lebowski fandom can be a bit elitist, Chung concedes. “There’s this whole inside joke feel.
“But the whole nature of the movie -- and the Dude -- is so accepting, no matter who you are,” he says. Even those who were initially baffled by the film can be brought around by the fans. “If you saw the movie once and didn’t get it, there are converters.”
‘The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans’
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood through Saturday