The first time I walked into the Alamo Drafthouse, I really had no idea what I was in for. I was a fresh-out-of-college intern at a distribution company, paying my own way to the South by Southwest Film Festival on a whim, and decided to book it directly from the airport to a midnight screening of the action-packed Parkour movie District B13. As I stumbled, suitcase in hand, into the rowdy theater, a voice rang out from the back seat, "Something smells like Farihah!" It was my boss, and he was wasted, because when you go to a midnight show at the Alamo Drafthouse, that's what you do.
What followed was one of the most memorable movie nights of my life, as I proceeded to share a bucket of beer with my new coworkers and my enthusiasm for a badass movie with the kind of raucous audience I had only experienced at the choicest of Bollywood films in New Delhi, all while trying to comprehend from whence this magical place had appeared. The original Alamo was opened in downtown Austin in 1997 by Tim and Karrie League, who were able to open several other locations fairly quickly thereafter. Not only do servers bring pretty decent food and drink directly to your seat, something of an improvement over my usual sneak-in-a-six-pack standby, they also supplement first runs with a potent blend of classics, cult classics, obscure animated and experimental films you almost never see anywhere, interactive special events, and some truly bizarre B-movies and genre film.
This trip back to SXSW I arrived the night before the film festival started and was lucky enough to experience another of the Alamo's rad traditions before the theater was taken over for festival screenings: the singalong. A hip-hop singalong to be exact. On the other end of several whiskey sours, up on stage shaking it like a Polaroid picture to Outkast, I fell in love with the Alamo all over again. I remained very much in the afterglow a few days later while strapping myself in for the not-so-secret secret screening of British filmmaker Neil Marshall's (The Descent) latest, Centurion. Like District B13, the film, which is based on the legend of a small legion of Roman survivors trying to fight their way out of the enemy Picts' territory in AD 117, was a great fit for one of the late-night genre slots at the Alamo.
While the film featured muddy politics, positioning itself vaguely as an anti-war film while also encouraging us to root for heroes of questionable morals, you really go see this movie to find out how many ways a head can explode (answer: wow). In addition to the glossy fountains of blood, the film hit a few higher-brow marks by showcasing critically lauded actors like Michael Fassbender (Fishtank, Inglourious Basterds) and Dominic West (The Wire), and of course some very impressive cinematography. Shot on location in Ireland, the beautiful backdrop is used to stunning effect, as the camera races over snow covered fields or captures the legion rising cautiously from under a carpet of leaves. Despite the zingy one liners and the gore, the writing in Centurion also has a slightly intellectual bent, and a surprisingly somber tone, that sets it apart from cinematically toothless historical action films like Troy.
I imagine that to some Austinites and longtime regulars of the festival my love letter to the Alamo might seem like a quaint statement of the obvious, and while of course not every experience there is mind blowing, I'm still amazed at the thrill of potential I feel when walking into the theater, the firm belief that every time really could be like the first time. The Alamo is one of the things I most look forward to when it comes to the SXSW experience; it is an Austin institution, keeps me from starvation during those break-free days on the festival circuit, and continues to program events I am loathe to miss long after I leave.