Alamo Blog-a-Thon: The little church on Colorado

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One of the best things about Alamo Drafthouse Downtown has been the audience's general respect and appreciation for the movies they are watching, whether it's a beloved classic or an obscure exploitation flick. People may laugh or applaud or even cheer, but they're rarely derisive. The respect has been built over time, with help from Alamo regulars and some gentle reminders from Alamo owner Tim League, programmer Lars Nilsen, and others. There are times when it's impossible not to laugh a little at a bad movie, and of course you have to deal with the occasional obnoxious audience member -- although Alamo really will take their asses out, I saw this happen to a drinky bunch during Forgotten Silver years ago -- but overall you will never find a better audience experience.

The ultimate audience experience at Alamo occurs during Butt-Numb-a-Thon. When I finally got into a BNAT on standby last year, I learned for myself what everyone had told me: A theater packed with 200 people all there to watch movies, eager to love the movies they were watching, with no cell phones or babies or people who wanted to be elsewhere -- is the best part of the event. If someone doesn't like a specific movie, they go out into the lobby, take a quick break outside, or even put their head on the table near them and take a nap. (There was a lot of napping around 4 am.) I probably would not have seen Rocky Balboa on my own since the trailers were so off-putting, and I am sure that if I had, I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did with the enthusiastic audience at BNAT. Even the movies I didn't like so much were a pleasure to watch in that environment.

BNAT showed me something else I hadn't discovered about moviegoing. I was seated on the side of the theater -- if you know Alamo Downtown, you know those little black tables on the sides with the barstool-style chairs. I was on the left side, close to the front, and during one of the slower films (possibly Inherit the Wind, which I'd partially seen before), I realized that I could swivel around in the chair and watch the audience. It was a wonderful way to indulge my voyeuristic tendencies. I'd volunteered for aGLIFF the year before and worked in the projection booth (although the "booth" in the Arbor is the size of an apartment) and got a real kick out of peeking through the projection window at the audiences. I loved seeing a view of the audience that was not normally available, which is how I felt during BNAT. Watching the BNAT audience was especially entertaining in the middle of the night, when half the crowd fell asleep during The Informer.
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Since then, I've found a couple of opportunities to watch audiences. At the Paramount screening of Inland Empire, my seat turned out to be in one of the boxes on the side. If the movie grew a little slow, I could lean over a bit, peek over the side, and watch the audience's reactions. It wasn't as good an angle as the side of Alamo, though; mostly I could see only the tops of people's heads.

About a month ago, I attended the last two nights of Quentin Tarantino's Last Night at the Alamo Grindhouse triple-feature series at Alamo Downtown. On Friday night, after the second movie in the "Redneck" lineup, I switched seats with Micah because I didn't intend to stay for the entire midnight movie, and he was tired of sitting in the high seats on the side. (They are not comfy if you're watching multiple movies in a row.) So I perched on one of the stools to watch the trailers, because the trailers before the Last Night at the Grindhouse movies were as entertaining as many of the films themselves. I watched a few minutes of the movie (In Hot Pursuit) to make sure I wasn't missing anything I'd regret later ... and then I turned slightly as I saw someone leaving the theater, and remembered how much fun it is to watch the audience, particularly at a midnight movie that is finishing off a triple-feature. A few couples were propping each other up, half-asleep. One film writer whom I knew personally was sitting in the third row, leaning all the way forward, intensely absorbed in the film ... and the guy next to him was splayed out with his head back, dozing.

I looked up at the projection booth and caught a glimpse of the projectionist in the background, and then for the first time, saw a reel change. The light shifted from one projector to the other. This is something you won't see in most big chain theaters, where the reels are combined and mounted on giant platters, and I'd never noticed it before at Alamo Downtown. A couple of days later, talking to Nick Robinson about something else entirely, he told me that reels are 20 minutes long, and you can time a movie by reel changes. Nick collects 16mm prints so he is well-versed in this kind of stuff, but the only film prints around this house are Super 8, so I had no idea. The reel change I saw at Alamo seemed almost magical -- as if I'd secretly witnessed the reality behind the illusion.

I returned to Alamo Downtown a couple of nights later for the Tarantino-hosted "Swinging" triple-feature: The Swinging Barmaids, The Swinging Pussycats, and The Swinging Cheerleaders. I planned to stay for all three films, because I heard that Swinging Cheerleaders was the best of the three -- directed by Jack Hill (Foxy Brown, Coffy), and I hadn't seen any of his films before. I got there early and didn't see anyone I knew, and I thought it would be fun to sit on the couches in the back row. I hadn't been on the couches since the Turkey Marathon, and I figured they would be the comfiest way to get through a triple-feature. I took one side of the big couch in the very middle, and ended up chatting for a bit with the guy on the other side, whose girlfriend took the center spot on the couch. There was plenty of room to curl up and enjoy the movies. And I had an entirely different voyeuristic angle -- from the back of the theater, I could take pictures of everyone in front of me as they watched the pre-show. (Alamo's pre-shows aren't commercials and publicity crap like you get at certain chain theaters, but instead are collections of film clips and videos and weird TV, usually compiled by Lars.)

Alamo Drafthouse crowd

Tarantino introduced the first film that night (Swinging Barmaids) by noting that this would be his last night in the theater on Colorado -- he wouldn't be able to return to Austin before the theater closed. He started reminiscing about the theater, and suddenly said, "Everyone look at the ceiling tonight. Have you ever seen another theater with a ceiling like this?"

I looked up at the ceiling (we all did). I hadn't paid attention to the Alamo Downtown ceiling in awhile -- I think it originally had that acoustic-y stuff on it, or whatever it was that looked like giant hunks of mold, and you'd hope none of it would fall down on your head. The ceiling at Alamo Downtown is painted black, with pipes and ductwork exposed, and a little platform for some reason I can't determine. But the thing I noticed about the ceiling is that it's a cathedral ceiling: it slants like the pitch of a roof would. See what I mean?

It seemed perfectly fitting that the theater that Tim League and others have called "our church" would have a ceiling that recalled a church, and I was surprised I hadn't noticed it before. I looked up again when the movie started, and realized something else ... I was sitting right below the two projectors, just about midway between them. The beam of light from the projector picked up the dust in the air and made it sparkle, and I was entranced by the effect.

The second movie, Swinging Pussycats, was a little dull -- a sex romp without much actual sex -- and I amused myself by occasionally watching the beam of light from the projectors, trying to figure out when the reel change would occur and the light would shift from one projector to another. I caught it once, during Swinging Cheerleaders, and again felt like I was in on something mystical.

I know people are concerned that the new Alamo under construction, in the old Ritz Theatre, won't be quite the same -- that the theater might draw the Sixth Street crowd, and it could get a little drunken frat-boy-ish in there. However, the Warehouse district, where the original Alamo Downtown is located, has changed dramatically in the ten years since Alamo opened its doors. Walking through the weekend-night crowds after seeing Mom and Dad hosted by Joe Bob Briggs last weekend, I was well aware that the crowds streaming from bars and restaurants around Alamo weren't much of an improvement on the Sixth Street crowd. I'm not concerned about how comfy the chairs will be at the Alamo Ritz, or whether the pizza will be quite as good, or if they'll finally be able to have a shake machine ... okay, that would all be very nice. And the parking situation in that section of downtown is a little worrisome, but again, parking around the original Alamo has been getting tougher. And I'm not worried about the audience -- when the Ritz opens, I know I'll see all the Alamo regulars again.

I believe that Alamo Ritz will be able to attract and keep those respectful yet enthusiastic audiences, the ones that make moviegoing at Alamo theaters such a pleasure for movie lovers, and that's what I look forward to enjoying -- the church of Alamo. I can't wait to rejoin the congregation in the fall. 

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