Return to the Alamo

I went to my favorite movie theater last night. Was it a mistake?

I went to the Alamo Drafthouse last night. Their Lakeline location in Northwest Austin, the nearest one to my house, was pretty much the last place I went before COVID-19 shut down everything in March. My wife and I saw Emma, like life was normal. And then the virus overwhelmed the world.

The Alamo Lakeline sneaked open on Wednesday with a free screening of Bill and Ted Face the Music. The screening had filled by the time I opened my phone app. But I bought a ticket for Thursday night. I was the only person I knew who did.

Alamo

The Alamo Drafthouse isn’t the quirky little countercultural entity it was when I moved to Austin nearly 20 years ago. It has locations in more than a dozen states, and has spent the pandemic era scrambling to stay alive while fending off accusations of sexual harassment at current locations, and also the continued fallout of a disastrous rape culture among entities that it once owned. It’s a large, troubled company, not a cute indie darling.

But it still offers a moviegoing experience that no other company can duplicate. Its half-hour preshow, tailored to individual movies, is 1000 times better and more relevant than the disastrous advertising blocks that other theaters offer. The decent pub food isn’t too expensive, and either are the tickets. There’s lots of beer on tap. They offer great revival programming and special features And they rigidly enforce a no talking or cell-phone-use rule. If you like movies, the Alamo is hard to beat, especially given the competition.

Austin definitely likes movies. But it’s remained pretty tightly buttoned-up in the time of COVID, especially compared with the rest of Texas. The city didn’t exactly embrace the Alamo’s reopening. Instead, people reacted as though the Drafthouse were an agent of death. The company might as well have been offering patrons a bar of soap and the promise of a Zyklon-B shower.

Movies Kill

That pretty much mirrors the national reaction to the reopening of movie theaters. Though more than 1000 not-drive-in theaters were open throughout the summer, scraping by showing revival fare, documentaries, and indie horror flicks, people reacted to this reality with disgust. Movies right now operate in the same cultural plane that beaches did in the spring. People think they kill. And if you go to them, you’re an accessory to murder, or you’re committing suicide. Currently, 62 percent of all pre-pandemic screens are open for public culling.

Though theater operators in New York are begging Andrew Cuomo to let them reopen, like they’re allowed to do in 42 other states, Cuomo said last week:

“I am sure there is a whole group people who say, ‘I cannot live without going to the movies.’ But on a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. It is congregant. It is one ventilation system. You are seated there for a long period of time. Even if you are at 50% capacity with one or two seats between the two of you, this is a risk situation and … movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials.”

Strangely enough, movie critics themselves are driving this attitude. When Disney refused to release a screener of New Mutants to critics, The Onion’s A.V. Club pronounced that they wouldn’t be reviewing the film: “We are, in fact, adopting the official policy of only reviewing films our writers can safely watch, whether in a socially distanced press screening or with a digital screener. And yes, that applies to all our writers, even those willing to take the risk for an assignment, because we’re not willing to monetize that risk, either.”

And much like a crusade for social justice has become the default stance for sportswriters who don’t work for Barstool, this is pretty much the baseline attitude for film critics. Witness this smug video from the YouTube film critic “Nando”:

 

While actual American reporters are risking their actual lives by plunging into fiery urban riots, film critics are painting themselves as heroes of the pandemic for not only refusing to go to the movies, but by encouraging their readers and viewers to skip the experience themselves. I’m sure they’re being cautious. Or maybe they’re just being pissy because they’ve lost their most-favored-nation status during the COVID era. Studios are gambling, maybe correctly, that people are so starved for new cinematic content that they’re going to bypass the smug, concern-trolling gatekeepers.

Going to see Tenet in theaters is not a “moral dilemma”, despite what Uproxx might say. It’s a fuckin’ movie. See it, or don’t. I would never tell one of my critics here at Book and Film Globe to go to a movie theater right now. Not at our rates, or at any rate. But if they want to venture out, I’m also not going to stop them. I’m not the COVID police. The AV Club won’t save one life during the pandemic, any more than they would have killed anyone because they published a review of the shitty New Mutants movie. Writing about movies is fun, but it’s not exactly first-responder duty.

Once More Into The Breach

Alamo

So what was it like? A masked Alamo employee stood at the front door behind a lectern. She had a digital thermometer. She pointed it to my forehead. It didn’t work. She must have clicked on it a dozen times. I stood there and flinched like a guy facing a firing squad of malfunctioning rifles.

The lobby was empty of people, or any of the Alamo’s usual whimsical displays, though the large plaster statue of Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes was still standing, a remnant from the days before we damned it all to hell. The Alamo had marked my seat with a large orange ticket that read, in black script, “Welcome Back. And Now…On With The Show!” I also had a printout of the theater rules, including the words, “Welcome Back, Neal Pollack!” That’s far more than other theaters had done for me during the pandemic. But I’d visited those as a journalism experiment, not because I actually cared to be there. This was home base.

The printout informed me that my food and drink order was on the way. You have to order ahead of time online or on your phone app. I hadn’t ordered anything. As usual, I had a box of frozen Junior Mints in my pocket, or maybe I was just glad to see you. The order wouldn’t contain any plates or glasses. Then came the key moment:

“MASKS: For everyone’s safety, masks are required in public areas–basically, everywhere other than in your seat.”

In other words, everywhere except where it actually counted. And then, sure enough, a couple with significant comorbidities sat down next to me. The Alamo is putting a two seat “buffer” zone between every party, but that’s not really a lot, especially when the party closest to you removes their masks immediately upon sitting down and then keeps them off for the entire two hours.

The preshow rolled, mostly clips of an early-90s “Bill and Ted” Saturday morning cartoon, and clips of The Idiot Box, a weird show Alex Winter had on MTV in the same era. Then the movie showed. Stephen Garrett watched it on video-on-demand at home, and has reviewed it elsewhere on this most excellent site. But I agree with his assessment entirely. I tried to enjoy myself, but also felt a sweaty upper lip behind my N95 at the chicken-wing-chomping older couple seated maybe 12 feet to my right. While I would put myself at the far low end of the virus hysteria scale, it made me nervous, whether I needed to be nervous or not. And if it made me nervous, it’s going to make everyone nervous for a very long time.

When the movie was over, the Alamo instructed us to exit “by row” but there was no one on hand to supervise this activity, and people mostly sat frozen in their seats, not entirely sure what to do next. Finally, we all started to slink out nervously, walking past the masked employee with a tank of sanitizer strapped to his back, wielding a nozzle like an exterminator.

About an hour after I got home, the Alamo sent me an email asking me for my feedback. I had mostly positive comments, but I said they really need to think about their mask policy. People should have their masks on unless they are eating and drinking, at least for the time being. Just sitting down shouldn’t be an excuse to spew aerosol.

They asked when I was coming back, ranging from “this week” to “never.” Well, I already have a ticket to next Thursday’s early matinee screening of Tenet. It’s only showing in theaters. Our other critics either don’t have access to an open theater or just don’t feel ready yet. I don’t blame them. Twenty-four hours after going to the movies, I’m symptom-free. Check back with me in two weeks.

But I’m not going back to the movies next week just out of professional obligation. And I’m not doing it to encourage other people to make the same choice. Everyone needs to do what makes them feel safe and comfortable right now. I highly doubt anyone is waiting for my OK to buy a movie ticket anyway.

Instead, I’m doing it because I like going to the movies more than I like doing anything else other than playing pub quizzes. Live trivia isn’t available right now, but movies are, whether or not that’s right, and whether or not some critics think they should be. I’m doing it because I can.

And because I want to.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

4 thoughts on “Return to the Alamo

  • August 30, 2020 at 9:35 pm
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    I’m an actual, flesh-and-blood first responder (EMT, seven years), so let me set a few things straight here. Movie critics aren’t the ones driving this attitude. Public health officials are. But I respect those critics and anyone else urging people to sacrifice a little to prevent the spread of a virus that endangers me, my coworkers and the populations we work with every day. I sure as hell respect them more than I do the people who defend knowingly risking becoming a disease vector by saying they did it “because I can, and because I want to” like a spoiled six-year-old. The EMTS, medics and nurses into whose faces you may soon be coughing as a result of “wanting to” sacrifice a hell of a lot more than seeing a movie every damn day, and on your behalf; I don’t think it should be too much to ask that the public shoulder some of the burden as well. I haven’t seen my family in months–don’t cry to me about how much it sucks that you’re being told to avoid a movie theater. At the very least have the decency not to invoke the first responders who are attempting to make a difference in your argument for why you shouldn’t have to.

    Reply
    • August 30, 2020 at 10:23 pm
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      I meant no disrespect to actual first responders, and to you, if this comment is authentic. The “not being able to see my family for months” sounds like something from New York City in March or early April, not from a phenomenon that is widespread in our current reality. Regardless, the point I was trying to make, and continue to make, is that movie theaters are open whether or not people think they should be. And it’s hypocritical for movie critics, who’ve made their livelihoods by feeding off the industry that they’re now seemingly trying to destroy, to suddenly turn into public-health scolds. Their opinions will not save a single life, just as my opinions will not cost a single life. My attitude may not be noble, but it’s also common. People want to get back to normal. Movie theaters are normal. No one has traced a single outbreak to movie theaters in the United States. They’ve been open, in some capacity, since May. It’s possible I might get sick, but I also might not. Other than my moviegoing habit, I live pretty carefully. And I also might have had COVID back in the early days. Who knows?

      Reply
      • August 31, 2020 at 12:23 am
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        There’s probably nothing I can say that will convince you that this sort of experience is “widespread in our current reality,” but any doctor, nurse or first responder in a major metropolitan area right now can tell you that it is–we’re the ones living it. Nobody working in the medical field in the US right now–at least in major metropolitan areas–has the luxury of pretending that things are basically okay. We go into hospitals with COVID positive patients every day, and as a result we can never be sure what we might have in our systems. My mother is elderly and immunocompromised–I haven’t been able to see her or the other of my family members who live with her in months because of what might happen if she catches it, and no diagnostic test a first responder can take will be accurate for more than a day. The longer people go around pretending there are no consequences to their communities from their attempts to live the way they did pre-pandemic, the longer this will be the reality for those of us in the healthcare field. We are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of prolonged inaction; what I’ve come to realize is that most people are okay with that as long as we’re polite and get sick or die where they can’t see us. I’m sure none of this will make much of an impression on you or most of the other people reading this. I’m used to it. Most of us in the field have come to realize that the loudest voices thanking us or calling us heroes for working these jobs don’t say it because they care, but because it makes them feel good to do it. Being called a hero is cold comfort when you’ve just gotten off a 24-hour shift where you spent an hour each in the back with three different COVID patients. (And in case anyone protests, yes, 24s are also widespread in our current reality. Believe it or not.)

        I’m not just an EMT–I’m a film buff. That’s why I’m reading this site in the first place. I live to see movies on the big screen. Over the years I’ve sat through theatrical screenings of Jeanne Dielmann (3.5 hours), Until the End of the World (5 hours) and Satantango (7.5 hours) just because I loved the idea of being in a theater for that long, experiencing something unique alongside a group of strangers who’d remember it for as long as I did. I check the websites of my favorite theaters on a weekly basis just to make sure they haven’t closed permanently. I long to be in a theater again. The second we have an effective vaccine, that will be the first thing I do. But a virus doesn’t care how badly I want to go back, and it won’t give me a break just because an early morning show is a great way to come off an overnight shift. A lot of people are going to pretend otherwise because they want things to be normal again; I understand the impulse, but I invite them to try wishing into one hand and shitting into the other and see which one fills up first. You can’t negotiate with a microbe. From someone on the frontlines–things are not normal, and the kind of willful self-deception that says we can pretend it is has already made this last longer than it had to. I’m sure nothing I say can stop that, though. I wish you joy of Tenet.

        Reply
        • August 31, 2020 at 10:37 am
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          I have my doubts that this is an actual person, rather than an elaborate COVID fan fiction, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s legit. It doesn’t sound like “EMT” is a good candidate for going to the movies, or for doing anything else, for that matter. But most people’s daily lives don’t involve constant contact with people who have the most severe possible cases of COVID-19.

          Movies have been open and seating patrons since May. I haven’t seen a single report of outbreaks or infections related to going to movie theaters. This is the latest in a long line of moral panics around the virus, which always seem to involve voluntary activities that normal people seem to enjoy. It joins going to the beach, the opening of Disney World, the restart of Major League Baseball, taking your children to the playground, and many others. Meanwhile, our society continues to fail to adequately protect people who are actually at high risk, like grocery-store workers and residents of senior-care homes.

          Tenet is opening this week world-wide. If there is a massive swell of movie-theater related COVID infections and deaths as a result, I will unhappily report it and offer a mea culpa. But I don’t think I’ll have to publish such a piece.

          Reply

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