Sep 26, 2015

My Summer at the Alamo

I was going to start this piece off by addressing my dedicated readers, but that would be a misnomer. Indeed, I have some friends and colleagues who seek out what I have to say, to which I am flattered, but in order to be dedicated, there must first be something to dedicate oneself to, and the fact is that I've barely written much of anything for almost a year, and the writer's block had started kicking in well before that. One of my editors offered, some time back, that it seemed like I just didn't love writing about movies anymore, and he was right, no matter how much I didn't want to believe it.

I don't intend to dwell on this, but instead to embrace it as some sort of necessity in my personal life. I moved to Pittsburgh following my mother's passing, and for all of what seemed like the right reasons, I moved to Denver earlier this year. It didn't take long to realize that I need to go back, for reasons I couldn't see except from afar. I'm comfortable with this, but it doesn't mean the temporary limbo I've found myself in is any less strenuous. For now, though, I'm optimistic, and I trust in patience and my gut, and that they're pulling me in the right direction. They have so far.

Denver it is for now, and as I so often have, I've found some refuge from life's more weathering aspects at the movies. Work, exercise, and sleep (even more of a necessity than usual as I'm trying to kick caffeine for good) take up most of my time, otherwise, and at this point, there's no sense in trying to maintain much sense of objectivity. I've been a fan of the Alamo Drafthouse since a trifecta of visits I made with a friend to one of their Austin locations in the summer of 2010, at which I was blessed with the opportunity to see the now cult-certified Miami Connection in its effective public re-premiere. When I recently learned that Film Freak Central critic and friend Walter Chaw had become the general manager of the new Littleton location, I was ecstatic, and seeing this location was near the top of my list of things to do once I got to Denver.

Walter proved to be just as affecting and generous in person. We first met at a further nexus, of sorts, for yours truly. One Matt Zoller Seitz was attending the screenings of two films in a cross-promotion of his books on the films of Wes Anderson and the not-yet-published Oliver Stone Experience. Matt's presence in both the film world and my life, and as someone who has also experienced great loss, can't be put in words that I think do it justice. He's been like a personal lighthouse, or Yoda, perhaps. We spent the night talking about the films being screened, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Natural Born Killers, and also “Bojack Horseman” and the yet-unreleased Jurassic World, and how fucking hard and great life can be. Whatever forces are or are not at work in the universe, it felt like exactly where I needed to be, wherever else I'd go from there.

That was the best Alamo experience I've had so far, and I don't expect it to be topped. But one of my first – the opening night of Mad Max: Fury Road – came close, and that the movie itself represents a sort of encapsulation of my life right now (Charlize Theron helped me see the Furiosa in my own life, and patriarchy just sucks, seriously) makes this all feel like a memoir chapter just waiting to be written. It's certainly defined my summer. To make some perfect even better, opening night of Fury Road was screened with one of the Alamo's famous multi-course, beer-paired meals served throughout the movie. Black bean pork chili, served with tortillas and – I love this – in a can, because Mad Max.

You'd be fair in thinking that the servers walking about during the movie would be terribly distracting, but on the whole, I find they're not. In the dozens of visits I've made to the theater since, I keep experiencing moments where my drink or check seems to have suddenly apparated, because I wasn't even aware the runner had stopped by. Tip them well. They deserve it.

Anyhow, Mad Max, opening night. There almost aren't even words for it. I've seen it now seven times theatrically, plus I don't know how many times at home, plus twice in manually-adjusted black and white, plus once in the newly-unveiled fan edit subtitled “black and chrome.” I've come to the determination that it's the greatest action film in at least a quarter century. It has the cinematic moment of the year to date, for my money's worth, and it was that moment that solidified just how capital-M Motherfucking awesome the Alamo is.

You know the moment? Yeah, you remember it. When Nux has chased Furiosa into the storm, and Max grabs the flare at the last second, and the two vehicles collide, and the flare drops, and expires. I get chills just thinking about it. That moment proved that the Alamo was a special place because, for the next 45 seconds, the movie is essentially silent, and so was the audience. No talking. No whispering, which is also talking. No clanking glasses or silverware in a theater full of delicious food and beer that had already been served to its patrons. Other audiences I've seen it with have somehow been noisier, with only their asses in regular movie theater seats and popcorn and Skittles as their instruments. Some great feeb even made an MST3K-esque joke once, at a second run theater, about Max's car insurance going up (which literally makes zero sense in context). Not us. We were in rapture. I had found my place of worship.

The diversity and emphasis on the quality of the films that play at Alamo are well worth what is, in my mind, the most significant investment I have to make when visiting it – the time. 40 minutes' drive each way, if I'm lucky, and the necessary return drive limits one's alcohol choices, not that a second feature with a quesadilla isn't a bad way to sober up (and hey, I thought Trainwreck was kind of awesome, too).

In the further interest of full disclosure, I feel that I should add that while I have been a paying customer at the Alamo, I have also been treated as a guest on a number of occasions. My budget at the time of Matt Seitz's visit did not allow for me to attend both screenings; I committed to Life Aquatic, no offense to Mr. Stone and one of the best films of the 90s. Walter had me as a guest at Natural Born Killers, which also came with three beers and an amazing cheeseburger that they then replaced with a fresh cheeseburger when I asked for a doggy bag! It was, no doubt, one of the great nights of my moviegoing life, and an oasis in my own personal desert, and without Walter's generosity, it likely wouldn't have amounted to a third of what it did.

I assume that it's stating the obvious that the moviegoing experience kind of blows these days, mainly, if you're not careful. I saw a Terrence Malick film with a general audience once; never again (which is to say, no evening shows at the cineplex, which is where I saw his The New World. I similarly refuse to go to a horror movie on an opening night anymore, although the exception I made for It Follows at Pittsburgh's Hollywood Dormont theater was carefully vetted and ultimately rewarding one, because great horror films rarely play better than they do with a mostly full and respectful audience at a professionally maintained, classy theater. (If you get a chance, their 35mm copy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is beautiful). The Mile High Horror Film Festival is next week, and I'm silly with excitement. Typical horror movie crowds notwithstanding (words I hate to write, for I love the genre so), I feel like I'll be able to trust my fellow patrons. It took three months of regular visits for me to see someone on their phone there, during a movie, and the offender was quickly removed after myself and others had already complained. That level of infrequency is, as far as I'm concerned, a miracle. But maybe it isn't. It only makes sense that great business courts great clientele, and Alamo has both.

There's so much going on at the Alamo that I frequently have to pick and choose, not just because of the needs of my wallet, but because the screenings are literally overlapping. Alas, you can't do everything you want, film or otherwise, a fact that has resulted in a much more humble and rewarding life since I've taken it to heart. What Alamo guarantees, however, is that there will always be something awesome there, whenever you can go, and as a proponent of film exhibition, screenings of Chinatown, The Dark Crystal, Grace of My Heart, Do the Right Thing, Time Bandits, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Creature from the Black Lagoon (in 3D!), Scanners, The Abyss, Never Been Kissed, and an amazing genre oddity known as The Devil Fetus, among others, on 35mm, have been a great boon to my soul. This coming month sees a lot of great horror fare on the format, from The Changeling to Carnival of Souls to Antichrist. I wish I lived closer; it's the largest contributor to my odometer, by a walk.

As someone with experience both showing movies (I was a projectionist at Allentown, Pennsylvania's 19th Street Civic Theatre) and serving food in exchange for an hourly pittance, I know how hard it is to pull off either of those things with consistent quality. Alamo does well by it's customers, and everything else is just superlatives at this point. The extent and variety and creativity of their events is mind-boggling, from exquisitely curated meals based around a particular movie (the molten lava cake at the end of Terminator 2 was a brilliant touch) to filmmakers and other artists visiting the theater (tonight, I'll be seeing L.A. Confidential with James Ellroy in person), to all manner of audience participation (the Inside Out message board, pictured, broke my heart even more than the movie itself), concerts, and special menu items. At the Littleton location, you can still order the They Live-inspired Kick Ass Bubblegum Milkshake, and you should.

To brings things full circle, the melancholy heart of the matter of my life now is, I don't feel at home in Denver. My family and loved ones are far away, and my family, as am I, are getting older, and as much as I'm glad to have made a change in my life, I don't think this is it. It reminds me of Matt Seitz's blog The House Next Door, and more specifically, the adage from which it takes its name: Sometimes in life, you have to drive around the block backwards in order to get to the house next door. I think that that's what I'm doing.

Until this leg of the journey ends, the Alamo feels like home – as all good movie theaters do. Every Alamo location I've been to is second-to-none by any standard, and the fact that a good friend is holding the reigns to this particular location only makes it better that I'm lucky enough to be there this much at this time of my life. If justice prevails, there will be one in every major city before three more Star Wars movies are released, at which point you can all tell me how right I am.