Lebowski-themed events aren’t hard to find. Here’s Rob Calder of South Portland dressed for one at Bayside Bowl in 2012. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Some people just like movies, and that’s fine. Take ’em or leave ’em, movies are just one more entertainment option among many. For the rest of us though, simply “liking” a movie isn’t an option. For the true film fanatic, there’s a whole system of categorization, ranking, reviling, worshipping and slotting any given film into classifications only we truly understand. 

Take “cult movies.” The great film critic Danny Peary, author of books like “Cult Movies 1-3,” “Cult Movie Stars” and “Guide for the Film Fanatic,” all of which – and this is not an exaggeration – have been read to tatters at my house over the years, offers up the definition that cult movies are “special films which for one reason or another have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed.” 

In other words, fans of a cult movie are bananas for that movie. We own it (probably on several formats) and have watched it a minimum (bare minimum) of a dozen times. We make memes and repeat quotes. We have viewing parties, sometimes with theme menus and beverages. We buy absurdly expensive rare memorabilia from online fanatics who probably are only selling theirs because they’ve gone broke buying absurdly expensive movie memorabilia. We are, for all intents and purposes, a cult. 

Sometimes a cult forms around a movie so god-awful it goggles the eyes and boggles the mind. (Think “The Room,” “Birdemic” or the indescribably, insanely messianic oeuvre of Las Vegas auteur Neil Breen.) There are those so outright strange that we’re drawn to them like a cult devoted to things so weird that they might have been made by aliens. (The films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch come to mind.) 

Then there are movies whose cults defy easy explanation, like the two American comedies being paired up by Portland’s Port City Music Hall this week. Showing at 7 p.m. Friday is 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer,” followed the same time the next night by the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski.” That start time is merely the beginning of each night’s festivities, as Port City is leaning into each film’s cult status by preceding each movie with events like costume and trivia contests, where the faithful can come (in the ceremonial togs of any good film fanatic), win prizes and basically bask in the shared, loopy warmth of a group of like-minded film nuts who – for their own reasons – just straight-up love these movies. 

As for the cult status of each, “The Big Lebowski” is more obvious, with Port City, in its fourth annual iteration of the event, aping the international craze for such celebrations of the Coen’s shaggy-human story about a stoner bowler (Jeff Bridges, in the role that’s seemingly taken him over in the intervening years) caught up in a labyrinthine series of criminal plots all over sun-bleached, Gulf War-era Los Angeles. Cult status is not something that can be courted, or manufactured, and “Lebowski” remains something of an outlier. Made by major directors for a big studio, it’s certainly weird, but hardly weirder than the Coens are prone to get. It underperformed at the box office, but not by much. Any other movie might have slipped out of the public consciousness, instead of growing into the worldwide object of fanatical affection and enthusiasm it has. As Bridges’ The Dude (aka Jefferey Lebowski) might say with the noncommittal resignation of the perpetually underachieving, “Cool, man.”

“Wet Hot American Summer,” too, was a little movie that made hardly a splash when released. Its writer-directors (and much of its stellar cast) came from the similarly cult-adored sketch comedy troupe The State, and the narrowly focused satire (in this case of 1980s summer camp movies like “Meatballs”) is hardly the most promising setup. But, like “Lebowski,” the movie is packed with indelible supporting performances, some by people who’ve since gone on to conquer Hollywood (Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd), and others from The State’s prolifically hilarious ranks. It sunk without much of a trace at the time, but has since spawned not one, but two decade-later cult Netflix reunion series. And, like “Lebowski,” it’s eminently quotable, consistently odd and off-center, and fairly overflowing with unexpected comic choices. If its cult hasn’t translated to the lucratively press-worthy sort of the various Lebowski fests, it is just as strong – among those it’s strong with. That’s a cult movie for you. 

As to what makes these cult movies, well, as someone once said about something else entirely, “I know it when I see it.” Port City Music Hall does, too, and is hoping that, by lighting the cult movie beacon on behalf of these two worthy objects of film freak fanaticism, the two separate cults will assemble for some serious fun. 

“Wet Hot American Summer” screens at Port City Music Hall on Friday with festivities starting at 7 p.m. and the movie at 8:45 p.m. “The Big Lebowski” screens on Saturday on the same schedule. Tickets are a measly $5, and dressing up as your favorite character is enthusiastically encouraged. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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