It takes stamina to hang with the Dude, stamina and good hearing. A marvel and a mumbler, Jeff “the Dude” Dowd, the inspiration for the Jeff Bridges character in The Big Lebowski, draws people in wherever he goes and can out-party people a third his age. Last week, he leant his considerable knowledge and marketing to help kickstart a new film festival in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana International Film Festival. The Dude helped launch a little festival known as Sundance years ago.
As many of you know from my 12 part interview with Jeff for NOLA Defender, the Dude and I go back a few years (he and his date very kindly took me in at a premiere I was attending alone), so he started his trip to Baton Rouge with a visit to the Big Easy and gave me the opportunity to show him a good time NOLA-style. Joined by event organizer, Chesley Heymsfield, photographer Clinton Wallace and several others, we all met for dinner at the super-accomodating Marigny Brasserie on Frenchmen Street.
Filmmaker, Glen Pitre, “the father of Cajun cinema” and Michelle Benoit of Cote Blanche Productions attended as well as one of the winners of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, so the table was surrounded with people invested in filming in Louisiana. But, my favorite moment actually had nothing to do with movies. My friend, Tree, was supposed to meet us after dinner but I left my phone at home and had never memorized his number. Jeff asked how we would be able to solve the problem and I said, “It’s New Orleans. I’ll just say his name out in the street and see if anyone knows him.” I turned to the street and said, “Does anyone here know Tree?” to the half dozen people walking by. Behind me, Glen said, “Tree Battles?” I literally asked the street for Tree’s number and got it from my someone I’d just met.
We visited D.B.A. for a little Walter “Wolfman” Washington before trying to find recent Grammy winners Rebirth Brass Band. Vaso falsely advertised that Rebirth would be playing there, so we walked across the street to a patio bar for some music and conversation instead. Frenchmen Street is heavily populated with great musicians so heading back to the car later, we ran into Kermit Ruffins’ drummer, Derrick Freeman, getting ready for a set at D.B.A. The Dude’s charms are fairly irresistible to most so it can take an hour to get from a bar to a car as strangers come to see just how it is that “the Dude abides.”
We met up again in Baton Rouge for a weekend of non-stop experiences. First up was a reception at Stroubes for the Louisiana International Film Festival (LIFF) followed by an Arlo Guthrie concert at the Manship Theatre in the Shaw Center, a gargantuan center for the arts which houses, among other things, galleries, theatres and museums. Arlo Guthrie may be a folk singer, but he is, above all, a storyteller. His own band tells a family story as his son plays keyboards and his grandson is on guitar. Arlo’s father was legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, who gave us This Land is Your Land. As the band took on Woody’s classic, I was struck by what a privilege it was to watch 3 generations of Guthries playing a fourth’s, and how Louisiana-like it was as so many musician’s here are carrying on the family business.
The theatre is wonderful but it’s been a long time since I sat in a chair to watch live music. It felt odd not to have grass beneath my feet and a sway in my hips. No matter, I bounced around in my chair anyway. A highlight was definitely their take on Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans. Arlo took the time to craft the evening around all things Louisiana. I appreciated his efforts as well as those he put forth when he organized a train of musicians to raise money after Katrina. And though he compared it to his own personal Groundhog Day, I would have loved to hear Alice’s Restaurant, a favorite since my childhood and a Thanksgiving Day staple. Maybe next time…
Undeterred by Wednesday’s misstep with Rebirth, we headed to Chelsea’s hoping their advertisements were more reliable. The crowd was mostly LSU students. We met 2 guys studying petroleum engineering in hopes of making the industry more environmentally safe, a PhD student looking to become a family therapist and a law student hoping to help his gay brother have the right to marry in his home state. It gave me optimism for our future to meet so many people who wanted to make the world a better place in some way.
Rebirth Brass Band took the stage as promised and delivered another powerhouse performance. Jeff couldn’t have been happier and thanked me several times for showing him such a good time. Mission accomplished! Afterward, we spoke with snare drummer, Derrick Tabb, and he said they we going straight from the show to a flight to Chicago. Lucky Chicago. Luckier us, as we knew they’d be back in NOLA in no time, playing free festivals and second lines. What an embarrassment of musical riches we have in New Orleans.
Saturday was the Dude’s big day. We started by fueling up at Sammy’s Grill. We ordered a few things but feasted on 10 pounds of crawfish, our first of the season. It looks like it’s gonna be a great year for crawfish if they’re already this good. The meal was just what Jeff had hoped for, a traditional seafood boil with corn and potatoes and plenty of spice. Favorite moment – we asked if everyone knew how to eat crawfish and Jeff said, “Sure,” then teased us by biting right into the head. Our photographer friend looked a bit concerned until we all laughed.
Afterward, we headed to the River Center to check out the 2012 United States Bowling Congress Open Championships. The 42 lanes host 60,000 bowlers over the course of months to find the best of the best. Calamitous noise, groups of guys in matching shirts and miles of scoreboards – it was a lot to take in. Despite the fact that Jeff doesn’t bowl much and Jeff Bridges never bowled in the movie, the Dude looked right at home.
Next up was the screening of The Big Lebowski launching the LIFF screening series. Jeff talked for awhile about creating a bullet train from Baton Rouge to NOLA. It is, of course, a great idea and maybe finally, it’s day has come. He also shared about mentorship and about creating small groups to get things done. In many ways, that’s exactly what Chesley has done with LIFF. So far, the foundation is focused on the film festival’s premiere next year, but the concept is far larger. They hope to create many ongoing programs bringing filmmakers, legislators, community members, local businesses and people from technology together in an ongoing way.
Jeff talked about getting the opportunity to be an unpaid intern on the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and how much he learned and how it shaped his career choices. He suggested that Louisiana require that filmmakers add interns to their sets. It would give unpaid labor to the producers and provide people here with the opportunity to get on the job training. I thinks it’s a great idea.
Mayor “Kip” Holden and Lieutenant Governor “Jay” Dardenne attended and seemed in good humor about the whole event. There were some who attended in bathrobes or other costumes from the film and the red carpet was lined with rubber boots filled with flowers highlighting the “Red Carpet, Meet Bayou” theme.
After the Q & A, we headed upstairs for an after-party overlooking the Mississippi. There was some dancing and lots of mingling, but I could barely take my eyes off the beautiful view. Then, it was off to the after-after-party at the Hollywood Casino. Their Boogie Nights dance club hosts 80’s night complete with costumes. Literally on the water, the club and casino have another of the city’s many great views. The highlight was watching the whole dance floor do the Cupid Shuffle and other funkified line dances. Then we heard something you almost never hear in NOLA, “Last call!” So, we went back to the comfort of the Hotel Indigo.
A word on our hotel. Recently redone, the rooms are small but really well thought out. In addition to the super-friendly staff, the hotel boasts free wi-fi, a really pretty bar/restaurant and free bicycles in a variety of sizes, complete with helmets. Maybe next time, I can take the path to LSU or see more of downtown by bike. Best of all after a long weekend of trying to keep up with Jeff, the bed was really comfortable.
The next day, much worse for the wear, we rallied and headed to the Country Club of Louisiana for brunch. Featuring a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course, tennis, swimming and a beautiful plantation home clubhouse, the place was pretty and elegant. With our neglected hair and casual clothes, we looked like something the cat coughed up. But membership has its privileges and we were treated like we were in linen suits and floral dresses. The buffet had everything from shrimp to bread pudding, from lox to waffles. It was pretty great.
The Dude signed a poster for me then we all hugged goodbye and went our various ways. I don’t spend much time in Baton Rouge since my Maw Maw passed years ago and only remember going to the downtown area once before. I was very impressed with the direction the city has taken, the variety of activities readily available and how truly picturesque it is. We’re always saying how nice it is for the people of Baton Rouge to be able to visit our city within an hour. Turns out, it goes both ways.
Thank you to Chesley and the entire LIFF family for a wonderful weekend. If the launch is any indication of what we can expect, I look forward to many more well-organized fun events designed to create a film community that includes the community at large in the great state of Louisiana – the other LA.
Photos by Clinton H. Wallace.