Thursday, July 26, 2007

You see what happens, Larry? - Lebowski 'Fest '07 at Executive West in Louisville

Back when The Big Lebowski came out in 1998, I went to see it on its opening night with my now-wife and always-sister. All of us being big Coen brothers fans, we were eager to see their follow-up to 'Fargo' (it's a mistake, though, to compare/contrast 'Lebowski' with other Coen Brothers films in Lebowski fan circles. It is a self-contained entity), and were not in any way disappointed. Somewhat bewildered, and definitely amused, but not disappointed. The movie is a favorite, but both my wife and I (and I would guess the Coen brothers) were surprised to find that the movie sometime in the 9 years since then became a Cult Classic of Rocky Horror Picture Show proportions, inspiring a legion of dialog-quoting fans who attend conventions like last weekend's 6th annual Lebowski-fest in Louisville (if you missed it, there are fests in Scotland and England next month).

Tipped off to this development by our friend L., my wife and I along with another friend T. got tickets for this year's fest. I grew a goatee in a half-assed attempt to achieve dude-dom (the long blonde hair has been there since, well, 1998) and the 4 of us got in the Prius and went south. It was the second time in my life Louisville was a destination, and not a place to pass through (the last time: a 1981 trip to Churchill Downs with dad, who introduced my 11-year-old self to betting on horse races).

Our first stop in Louisville was 'Lilly's' for lunch. L., sharing our interest in finding good food, had made a reservation there. It is highly regarded, and a bit pricey. I had the Price Fixe(?) menu, featuring the Caprese salad (a summer staple), a warm Nicoise salad, and the Lemon Verbena ice cream for dessert. I admired a wall-spanning painting of various attractive and topless women on the way out.

Next stop was the 'Executive Inn West'. Inside, a sign welcomed X High School's 50th Reunion. 'John' at the desk informed us actually the Lebowski Fest crowd was at the Executive Inn, but we decided to stay at the West in the interest of getting sleep Saturday night, operating on the assumption that the 68-year-olds might party less hard. John had attended past fests, but unlike me, he married a woman who did not get 'The Big Lebowski', so his festing days were done.

After admiring the signed pictures of celebrities including Charlie Daniels and the Blues Brothers 2000 (featuring John Goodman, Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski), we went up to our rooms and made some White Russians (the Dude's drink of choice, though he sometimes refers to them as 'Caucasians'), then headed across the street for the 'Garden Party'.

The party was a great place to check out the costumes people had put together for the fest. By far, the character we saw most was Walter Sobchak. Pulling off Walter required having the right physique for the role, and a lot of guys were very life-like Walters. Following Walter in popularity was 'The Dude', and many guys with sunglasses and robes as well as goatees and long hair could be seen. Many women came as Maude, some taking a stab at the Valkyrie outfit Maude sports in a dream sequence. Several men in white suits and red shirts impersonated porn magnate Jackie Treehorn, and a few brave souls took on the role of Coen brothers stand-by and national treasure John Turturro's brief but memorable role in the film: the purple-jump-suit wearing, bowling-ball-licking convicted pederast "Jesus". You could, and we did, buy a bumper sticker reading "It don't matter to Jesus".

Some people had more conceptual costumes based on catch-phrases or dialog from the film. A guy wore a monkey mask and carried plastic eating utensils. His friend was dressed as an Irish stereotype. A young woman appeared to be dressed as a piece of shit with a 'NEW!' sign, and she carried a flashlight. A guy got inside a globe that had a hammer and ax that swung down at his head when he pulled some levers inside. Answers to what the hell these costumes meant in my next post.

We saw a couple guys wearing jellies, like the Dude sports at the beginning of the film when he's checking out milk at the grocery store. One was a pretty convincing Dude, and in fact was a returning champion 'best Dude'. His friend was going to dress up as Walter for the competition in the evening. We commented on another Dude's sweater, which resembled the one he's wearing when he has his run in with the sheriff, but were informed that the pattern and the color were all wrong, and champion Dude had a much more accurate sweater in his possession. 'We don't half-ass it' he said. I of course, half or even quarter-assed it. On the other hand, I wasn't wearing a sweater or robe in the middle of July. And really, wouldn't the Dude, as the laziest man in Los Angeles County, have half-assed it?

There was also music there. 'Lucky Pineapple' (I think) did a fun instrumental rock thing (dressed as Uli and the other nihilists' late 70's Kraftwerk-like band 'Autobahn'), and 'Th' Legendary Shack Shakers' brought us a hybrid of punk and rockabilly. The punk/rockabilly thing has been mined before, more than a few times (Elvis Hitler, Shockabilly, the Reverend Horton Heat, 'Jesus Built My Hot Rod', The Cramps, etc, etc) but in this case the lead-singer's (Col JD Wilkes) Johnny Rotten stage presence combined with the way he played the harmonica through one of those vintage mics that distorts the hell out of it lifted the band above the punk/rockabilly pack. He also sang into the distorto-mic at several points for that 'Jesus Built My Hot-rod' vocal sound.

After checking out the Shack Shakers and loading up on 'Achiever' t-shirts, stickers and various other souvenirs, we headed into town for dinner. I had a nice corn-dog at the Garden Party, but nobody else went for a corn dog, so my travelling companions were hungry.

While walking along Bardstown Street, we ignored the 'B' in the window when we passed the 'Cafe 360', focusing instead on the sight and smell of Indian food on one of the outdoor tables. The 360 refers to the fact that although Indian food is featured and the owners (and the intimidating guy who sat on the hood of a car making sure nobody dined and dashed) are of Indian descent, they have pretty much every kind of food on the menu, including Philly Cheesesteaks, which T. opted for. I had the Tandoori Chicken. Everything BUT the Philly Cheesesteak involved what looked like the 'Mixed Asian Frozen Vegetables' assortment. Everybody had beer. The table next to us had a hookah brought out to them, so we had to inquire about that. 'It's not that good' the waitress informed us. I'm not sure if she meant there was no weed in it, or what. We didn't see her again, so she was probably in a back room getting the coffee is for closers lecture. Anyhow, monkey see, monkey do, we had to try it out for ourselves. Apparently this is something the youngsters have been doing for a couple years now, and with us 30-plus types trying it out, it's probably safe to say the fad is over now. We opted not to go for 'Strawberry' flavored tobacco, and chose 'Cappuccino' instead. Yes, we did. The strange thing about it was how mild it was. I guess I didn't get as much college bong experience as I should have. It did smell very nice, and the taste was interesting.

On our return we went to Executive Strike and Spare. It was after dark, so we all were honoring Walter's rule about 'not rolling on Shabbos'. The lanes were crowded, but it was more fun checking out everyone's costumes and partaking of the White Russians, scooped out of huge bucket-like containers. After 4 or 5 of these, I got an opportunity to bowl, with predictable results.

The costume competition happened, and we talked to the Jelly-wearing dude we had met earlier, now dressed as Walter. He was a convincing Walter, but did not win. He was particularly proud of the fact that his Folger's coffee can had a BLUE lid, like the one in the movie (the cans ordinarily have clear lids). While he was going on about this, none of us pointed out that Walter in the movie did not have a metal stud in his lip, like he did.

There was a bowl-off between the best Walter, Maude, Dude and Jesus for the coveted Publisher-Clearing-House sized check for 69 cents (like the one the Dude writes for a carton of milk). Walter won.

The celebrity guest was Jim Hoosier, aka 'Liam O'Brien', Jesus' bowling partner. He is a semi-regular at the fests. At previous fests, Jeff Bridges has appeared and played a song with his band, and David Huddleston once shouted 'The Bums Lost!' at a Fest for the adoring crowd.

We wandered back to the hotel after midnight and the last call for White Russians (down to 2-for-1 in an effort to unload them, but I had reached White Russian saturation by then), got some sleep and headed for home the next day. All in all, much fun was had, and I really need to watch that movie again now.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Shrek tried to kill my daughter

There are a couple of things you can depend on with a Mike Myers movie: you'll get characters with funny accents, you won't be made uncomfortable by jokes that are not already familiar to you, and the movie will be accompanied by a marketing and merchandising blitz that sucks the oxygen right out of the atmosphere.

Such is the case with 'Shrek the Third', released 2 months ago. Shrek is everywhere. Shrek in the U.S. is like Kims Il-Sung and Jong-Il in North Korea. Shrek is like Saddam Hussein in pre-2003 Iraq, or Austin Powers in 1999 U.S.A. So when my daughter was given a Shrek fishing pole for her birthday, I didn't really think anything of it. It makes sense, a Shrek fishing pole. I am admittedly pretty sick of Shrek and his Donkey, but the 'Kid proof design lets you spend more time having fun and less time untangling line!' So where's the harm?

Then I read the back of the package and found this ominous message:

WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm.

The bit about California was especially mystifying. If we were to get in the car and head west, would we unlock the cancer-and birth-defect causing powers of the fishing pole by crossing the border? Is California trying to show off that they know something the hicks in the other 49 don't? It's especially worrisome as DreamWorks, who brought us Shrek, is based in California. So they are knowingly subjecting non-Californian kids to some toxic death compound.

The item itself, like all items that are sold in the U.S., was made in China, the nation that recently brought us poison pet food (although they then applied the same punitive tactics they use against people who think maybe democracy just might be a nice thing to the guy who sold us the poison food, and executed him).

To point the finger at China is probably letting DreamWorks off too easily. Why attach their name to toys that California knows are unsafe? It raises a lot of questions. What kind of marketing tie-ins can we expect with Shrek 4? Shrek-brand menthols? Crack Pipes featuring Donkey? The merchandising folks really need to be reeled in.