Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On DVD: "The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans"

“It’s like all my nerdiest dreams have come true.” So says one of the organizers of the “Lebowski Fests,” a series of conventions and events for fans of the 1998 Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski, which went from a box-office disappointment to one of the most durable cult movies of the modern age—a Rocky Horror for the Internet era. Those fans call themselves Achievers—after the title character’s pet organization, the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers—and the slender but amiable documentary The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans gives us a peek into their world.

The film is directed and photographed by Eddie Chung, and if it’s not an inside job, it sure feels like one; Chung captures the essence, the feel of fandom, but does it without the slightly condescending snark of the (admittedly entertaining) Trekkies films. This is probably also due to the source material; in contrast to the (mostly) serious Star Trek films, Lebowski is a straight-ahead comedy, so its fans tend to have a sense of humor about themselves—what they are, and what they do. One Achiever is seen on the phone, trying to get a friend to come down to the Fest—“ We’re gonna drink White Russians, we’re gonna watch some movies with other nerds... It’s gonna be a good ol’ time.” That’s a man who knows what he wants, and knows what he likes.

Chung traces the humble beginnings of the “Lebowski Fests,” from a local event that surprised organizers with a turnout of 150, to later events with thousands of attendees and guests ranging from bit players to the band My Morning Jacket to the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges. Along the way, we meet some of the super-fans who populate “the Forum” (that’s what it’s always called), the online message board for Achievers; they’re the ones that work the festivals, travel around the country, and form friendships on and off the ‘net.

The picture is, of course, concerned with all things Lebowski—in addition to Bridges, Chung talks with day players from the movie and peripheral figures like beloved film rep Jeff Dowd, acknowledged by most as the inspiration for “The Dude.” He also takes a fascinating detour into the real story that inspired the odd and uproarious scenes with Dude’s stolen car and the homework in the plastic baggie—going so far as to track down Jaik Freeman, the real “Little Larry Sellers,” and reunite him with the Coen brothers’ friend Peter Exline, who told them the story.

Scenes like that are fun, and will delight fans of the movie. But the heart of the movie is the Achievers themselves. Plenty of screen time is spent on the sheer inventiveness of the fans; one of the organizers notes that the usual structure of the fest is “Friday night we watch the movie, and Saturday we become the movie.” The primary manifestation of this is in the clever costumes that festival goers don; it’s one thing to dress up like the Dude or Walt or Jesus, but when you’re so inside the movie that you bypass even the less obvious costumes (like a toe or a Creedence tape or a bottle of Kahlua) and work something up (like a masturbation manual or a carnal position with a camel) that requires explanation even to people who have seen the movie a hundred times, well, that’s when you’re speaking your own language.

In its more subtly insightful moments, The Achievers is not just about that particular movie, but about fandom in general. Andy, a forum poster and self-admitted obsessive personality, takes Chung’s camera on a tour of his memorabilia-filled home, including (swear to God) his “Simpsons room,” in which the walls are covered with figurines from that show. He talks about what being a super-fan means to him. Guys and girls like this are upfront about themselves; they’re not usually the most socially successful people (I say this with no judgment; I’d put myself in the same category). These are people who forge relationships by quoting movie lines and arcane trivia—those represent the common ground that they can share, the common experiences that they can speak to. But then (and this is only hinted at here, but it’s present) those relationships mature and progress, and hopefully, at the end of the day, these people can relate with each other about more than just this movie that they’ve all memorized.

Some of the filmmaking is pretty amateurish—the videography is shake and zoom-heavy, even by documentary standards, while the structure is somewhat scattershot and the final product leans too heavily on the copious clips from Lebowski. But a more professional film would have, in all probability, been too far removed to understand these folks as thoroughly and sympathetically as The Achievers does.

The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans may look and feel like a home movie, but that’s part of its considerable charm. It knows this scene from the inside out, and takes on an entertaining and clever journey inside of it. It’s easy to laugh at these fans, but honest viewers may see something of themselves in them as well, and those are the kind of laughs that stick in the throat a little.

"The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans" arrives on DVD on Tuesday, October 27th.

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