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Lebowski Achiever: English professor co-edits book on Coens' cult classic

by Kevin Hyde, special to UofL Today last modified Nov 09, 2009 04:15 PM

"The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies," a new book that examines Joel and Ethan Coen's modern cult classic "The Big Lebowski," rolls into bookstores this month.

Lebowski Achiever: English professor co-edits book on Coens' cult classic

Aaron Jaffe outside the Big Lebowski bar in Berlin.

University of Louisville associate English professor Aaron Jaffe co-edited the collection of essays with Edward Comentale, associate professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington. The book features contributions from five other UofL professors and achievers, and already has received Internet buzz from the likes of The New Yorker, Washington Post and Boston Globe.

In "The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies," fans and scholars scrutinize the influences of "The Big Lebowski" - westerns, noir, grail legends, the 1960s and much more - and look at the film's connection to the first Iraqi war, boomers, slackerdom, surrealism, college culture and, of course, bowling.

The follow-up to "Fargo," which before 2007's "No Country for Old Men" was considered the Coen brothers' masterpiece, "The Big Lebowski" came and went from movie theaters in 1998 rather quietly. For the most part, critics and filmgoers didn't know what to make of this shambling, verbose Los Angeles tale of a middle-aged, hippie bowler who just wanted his rug back, man.

But the film soon became a massive underground sensation thanks largely to its hilarious, highly quotable dialog and the creation of Lebowski Fest, a celebration of all things Lebowski founded in Louisville in 2002 by Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell. In recent years, "The Big Lebowski" has been hailed as the first cult film of the Internet Age.

UofL Today looked for Aaron Jaffe to discuss the new book and found him in Berlin, Germany, of all places - the land of Uli Kunkel (aka Karl Hungus) and his motley, toe-challenged nihilists.

"There's an ultimate Frisbee team here called the nihilists," Jaffe said. "They're nothing to be afraid of."

What are you doing in Berlin, dude? And is there really a Lebowski bar in your neighborhood?

I have an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship. I am here researching a book that has nothing to do with Lebowski. It's about international relations among famous authors in the 1930s.

But, yes, there really is a Big Lebowski bar in Berlin. There's a sign there that says nihilists are verboten. Berliners, it turns out, are really into "The Big Lebowski." You'll see Lebowski T-shirts, random people quoting the movie with relish just like they do at home, except over here they call the Dude Der Kerl-in the dubbed version shown on TV, at least. A German friend of mine proudly told me one day that Uli Kunkel [the name of one of the "nihilists" in the film] was alive and well and living in Berlin. He found the name in the phone book. If the Lebowski Fest wants to go international again (it went to London and Edinburgh one year), they couldn't miss with Berlin.

"The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies" had its start at a symposium held at UofL back in 2006. Tell us a little bit about how that conference came to be. At what point did you realize there was a book here?

Technically, we didn't have the Lebowski Cult Symposium on the campus but in a Louisville bowling alley.

The story of how this came to pass is durned innarestin, as the Stranger might say. A few years back I needed a new text to use in the graduate methods class I teach for our MA program in the English department. I was looking for something fresh without a lot of academic commentary. I wanted to discuss the role of audiences and fans in cultural reception. In terms of my needs, "Lebowski" was the perfect storm. It's a chin-stroker with many oddball narrative elements begging to be interpreted ("lotta strands in old Duder's head"), it has allusions to history, genres, other movies, and film buff stuff, and it was also a sleeper film with a huge cult following based in Louisville, Ky. One of my MA students at the time knew the fest organizers, and we invited them to come the seminar and participate in a discussion. The session was a hit, and afterwards the "founding dudes" suggested we do it for real.

Many people don't realize how eclectic English departments are today, that we examine things like "Lebowski." Of course, we still study Shakespeare, "Moby Dick" and Emily Dickinson, but we're also interested in film, television, comic books, advertising, fan fests and basically any other form of culture you can construe as ripe for interpretation and analysis. This remains news in some quarters but the fact that we read a surprising variety of things is no longer very controversial in the discipline itself.

I approached my friend Ed Comentale (a fellow professor of literary studies at Indiana University) about collaborating. He instantly saw the same possibilities I did in dragging the ivory tower through a bowling alley. This is literally what we did. We received a tremendous number of proposals and were very choosy about picking only really original theories about the film and papers that used them to open up ideas about other things like noir, the '60s, popular representations of war, existentialism, cult film, film theory, collecting culture or postmodernism. The final session at the symposium was also the opening event of Lebowski Fest, a roundtable session with a film critic, a popular author and a screenwriter (all non-academics) moderated by Ed and myself. The vibe of this session, which was attended by hundreds of eager achievers, was incredible and convinced us we had a book on our hands.

The essays in the book have been described as "complex, evocative, approachable, and attentive to the film's ironies and nuances. There is something here for the slacker as well as the scholar." Is that something you set out to do with the book-produce a scholarly work that was still accessible to the non-academic film fan?

"The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies" is not a traditional academic conference proceedings. Instead it grew out of the spirit of mashing up academic and non-academic styles of thinking and research methods. There's a bit too much today of the notion that thinking and learning are like getting molars extracted. The Chronicle of Higher Education blog, for example, noted the appearance of our book with this sentiment: "for every pop-culture phenomenon, there is an academic trying to analyze it to death." This is the Chronicle of Higher Education (for crying out loud!), but it sounds like the phony Mr. Lebowski himself: "Your 'revolution' is over, academics. Condolences!"

Discussing ideas is not about taking the pleasure away from anything. Far from it. Discussing ideas is a pleasure. The etymology of the word symposium is not irrelevant here. Of course, when we told the founding dudes of Lebowski Fest we were calling our conference a symposium, they were like … uh, what's a symposium? In a way, it probably seems "un-Dude" to set academics loose on "Lebowski." The Dude didn't remember too much of college, right? On the other hand, he has Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" on his nightstand. And, he's pretty quick with a quip. His fans, the Achievers, in addition to drinking white Russians and dressing up like Busby Berkley chorines, spend loads of time thinking about all kinds of stuff. What does the Dude's original rug look like? Is the Donny/Walter relationship like Haley Joel Osmond and Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense"? How can I make a costume about some obscure line from the movie? That sort of thing.

Academics are just "over-achievers" in this regard. We just want to know, too. What's the cultural meaning of the iron lung? Why does the film contain so many forms of collecting culture? How do you bowl ironically? Or, more importantly can you bowl un-ironically anymore? Is there really a secret menu at the In-n-Out Burger that explains how Bunny kidnapped herself? For film studies, it's a bit of an anomaly to have a "film" by respected auteur-directors like Joel and Ethan Coen that's simultaneously a "movie" that inspires such campy fan behavior in the vein of "Rocky Horror Picture Show." You know, what does it mean to have modernism and postmodernism wrapped in one burrito?

Is there a Great Book or Great Work you might compare it to, in terms of rich opportunities for study and celebration?

James Joyce's "Ulysses"? Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy"? Cheech and Chong's "Next Movie"?

What do you think is the common thread that unites all "Lebowski" admirers? When a bunch of them get together, is there one thing that they share besides a love for the movie?

They all dig the Dude's style.

Louisville is the fertile crescent of Lebowski-ites, it being the birthplace of Lebowski Fest. Have you attended any of these fests? If so, feel free to share an anecdote.

Yes, I've been to it. Louisville is definitely the hell-mouth for Achievers and all kind of Lebowski-wackiness. Much of the credit for this must go to the "founding dudes" and their friends, who managed to capture the quirky, Austin-like cultural vibe of the Louisville scene at the event they started back in 2002: great bands, awesome graphic design, unlimited bowling. They intuited that a place like Louisville really gels with the Dude's style. The oddest-yet also somehow moving and Dude-like-thing I saw at a Fest was some guys who brought the ashes of their dead uncle in a coffee can. They talked about watching the movie with him, laughing together, how taking his remains to the Fest became his last wish. I'll never forget how quiet it suddenly got when they got up there and hoisted their improvised urn at what is ultimately a massive bowling alley party filled with all sorts of bizarrely costumed people.

What type of person tends to be drawn to this movie?

Slackers. Ne'er-do-wells. Bowlers. Vets. Video artists. Fifth-year seniors. English professors.

When did you first see "The Big Lebowski" and how many times since?

I first saw the movie in the theater when it first came out in 1998 (at the old Von Lee in Bloomington, Ind., when I was in grad school). I remember thinking it was a lot better than "Hudsucker Proxy," but I had no idea I would eventually co-edit a book about it. I've seen it more times than I can keep track of.

Why did it attract the type of following that it did?

Well, a lot of people really seem to dig the Dude's style. That and DVD format and good word of mouth. It was one of the first great sleepers to rent on DVD when most of what else was available in the format was new releases. It's also that rare movie that gets funnier the more you see it, and it takes two viewings to appreciate this. They really started liking it the second time. It's fun to watch with friends. It's highly quotable. You probably work with someone, go to school with someone, who's forever quoting it, and so that itself is good "word of mouth." That's how a cascading effect begins when it comes to cult films.

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