Austin is now the third major US city I’ve lived in since officially leaving the nest of my parents’ home in central Texas six years ago. After spending several years in both Los Angeles and New York before my current settlement in Weird City, I’ve had the fortunate chance of getting exposed to three very distinct cultures of cinephilia. In preparation for and anticipation of a week of sleeping, eating, and living exclusively in Austin’s uniquely cinephilic Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount Theater for the upcoming Fantastic Fest, this week’s Culture Warrior takes a look at three great American cities and their equally great movie theaters.
The home of infamous movie palaces like Mann’s Chinese, Mann’s Egyptian, the ArcLight Cinerama Dome, and gigantic one-screens in Westwood frequently used to house major west coast premieres, Los Angeles is a city known for a particular type of celebration of the theatrical moviegoing experience. As evidenced by the Cinerama Dome (and the city’s many IMAX screens and various outlets for digital projection), LA is a place where innovation and the cutting-edge are par for the course in spectatorship, and bigger is always better. Since LA is the home of Hollywood, this unapologetically grandiose embrace of the event movie makes perfect sense, making every movie an experience through the very immensity of the exhibition outlets offered. LA convinces the serious moviegoer that it is criminal to not see any remotely big movie on anything less than the most intimidating screen possible. But moviegoing in LA can be an expensive hobby, so for more modest films (indies, docs, and foreign films), the city offers some smaller independent (and notably cheaper) movie theaters like Leammle’s Sunset 5 or – my personal favorite – the Los Feliz 3.
But the movie culture of LA – both in filmmaking and in filmgoing – is far too preoccupied with forward-thinking innovation and the next big “event” to have any sort of tangible long-term memory when it comes to cinema. Sure, the walls surrounding Mann’s Chinese have the names of every Best Picture winner, but this reads more as a celebration of the institution of Hollywood than an appreciation for today’s films in the context of film history. Sure, the city houses the UCLA archives and the Silent Movie Theater, but these act more as museums and artifacts of movie culture rather than serious evidence that Angeleno cinephiles are interested in retrospectives (as further evidence of this, LACMA is in the process of likely shutting down its retrospective film series). Sure, the ArcLight and the Egyptian show the occasional old movie, but they are often obvious choices with a guaranteed audience (La Dolce Vita at the ArcLight, Lawrence of Arabia at the Egytian). Overall, LA is a great place for the modern day movie event, but it is a city whose moviegoing culture, like Hollywood nearby, is too concerned with today and tomorrow to give a shit about yesterday.
New York City’s cinephilic culture is the opposite of Los Angeles in so many ways, filled to the brim with retrospectives and small screens. NYC is clearly a place where film history matters, and where filmgoing is taken very seriously (the 2002 documentary Cinemania evidences this, as we are introduced to four cinephiles in Gotham who treat the movie theater as a sanctuary to an amusing but sometimes frightening degree). In New York the big screen is a treat (the Ziegfeld, AMC at Lincoln Center’s IMAX), but it is hardly essential to seeing any movie old or new. The theaters that probably house the biggest movie geeks are often the ones with remarkably small screens, while the event movie experience is often left aside for the larger populace of moviegoers. After moving to LA, I found this a bit troublesome, as I couldn’t fathom seeing any movie in Film Forum’s David Lean marathon last year on such a small screen (and the “purity” of the movie event is also not taken so seriously, as Gothamites visiting the Angelika – one of NYC’s major limited release outlets – have to condition themselves to battle or ignore the sound of subway trains passing by). But NYC has more to offer than any city in America when it comes to revisiting all facets of film history, canonized classics under every disparate definition of the term, with competing retrospectives constantly going on at the IFC, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Museum of the Moving Image, Museum of Modern Art, the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, Anthology Film Archives (the veritable home of American experimental filmmaking), and, most importantly, Film Forum.
Film Forum sums up NYC moviegoing culture in a nutshell, as cinema in the Big Apple is seen as part and parcel of the city’s major artistic tradition, a worthy competitor with the other forms of art that make up the city’s dense creative history. While housing the best in new independent and foreign filmmaking often weeks before such films go anywhere else in the US, Film Forum perhaps more famously houses ongoing retrospective series containing an astounding amount of films rarely exhibited on the big screen today, centered around an actor (e.g., Tatsuya Nakadai, James Mason), director (Nicholas Ray, Jules Dassin), or a country and trend (French crime wave, US Depression-era films) – and the choices are thankfully not always obvious. The Forum is also famous for first-time showings of historic films in their intended form – like the first-ever American exhibition of Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969) in 2006 or Tarkovsky’s Russian cut of Solaris (1972) in the early 90s.
New York City has its own unique canon of films deemed important that stretch across its filmmaking, filmgoing, critical, and academic communities, and the ongoing emphasis of this canon (through published work like Film Comment and The Village Voice) further influence the both static and evolving tastes of this community. New York is a city that contains no wall between the archive and the movie theater. It’s a serious film nerd’s dream.
I feel as if I’ve lived in these three cities in perfect sequence, for each has torn down something I assumed about what moviegoing is supposed to be in the previous city. Where LA touted the large and immersive film event experience, NYC emphasized the quality of the canon over the need for a big screen or perfect sound. Then Austin flipped everything I assumed from the NYC filmgoing experience on its head. While Austin does notably contain an impressive film archive at the University of Texas as well as a summer retrospective series at the Paramount, the epicenter of Austin’s cinephilic culture is undoubtedly the Alamo Drafthouse. Sure, the Drafthouse is a great fun place to have a meal and some beer while watching the latest anything, but this is hardly the reason why this theater is so revolutionary. For me, it’s the Alamo’s ongoing event series that makes it one of the most important and unique moviegoing experiences in the US.
First of all, the Alamo is reflective of a larger culture within Austin that seems to rail against any active canonization of film history. Where cities like New York promote an “essential cinema,” those movies that are too important for the serious moviegoer to miss, the Alamo revels – sincerely, not ironically – in an appreciation of movies below the radar. Weekly events like Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday celebrate often obscure and forgotten cinematic oddities not for their obscurity alone, but for their own merit and value as cinematic objects and pieces of entertainment, collapsing the lowbrow and the highbrow into a serious-though-always-fun veneration of the populist art form that cinema really is. Movie nerd Austinites are well-aware of the cinematic canon, but do not give it reverence simply for its existence, as they seem to see value in almost any film, whether its been dismissed or embraced by fellow filmgoers or by film history itself. This is why at Terror Tuesday you won’t see “essential” horror classics like Halloween (1978), but rather a revival of the often-dismissed Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).
Secondly, the Alamo transforms the experience of the movie theater itself, replacing the often solitary spectatorship of NYC theaters with a collective community experience. Although the Alamo strictly (and thankfully) employs noise rules, they often host events that encourage audience participation, like quote-a-longs and sing-a-longs (the Alamo may not be the first theater to have done this, but they’ve certainly pioneered it). Events like Master Pancake Theater (a live version of MST3K) or Foleyvision (where a group provides a full live soundtrack for the accompanying film) transform the theater from a place of passive spectatorship to a locale of live performance and participation, taking the film away from its bounds by the filmmakers and making it truly belong to the audience, thus removing any reverent “film as holy” approach and letting the participants make the film their own. It’s an innovative idea of what moviegoing is and what moviegoing should be, and this rejection of the canon and embrace of audience participation I think makes the Alamo one of the most progressive filmgoing experiences in American cinephilic culture, and I’m very much looking forward to practically living there during Fantastic Fest.