South By South Wet

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Here is a cautionary tale about alcohol, and how it should not be mixed with jackasses. I learned this last week at the South By Southwest film festival, where alcohol flows through the streets like water, and jackasses flow through the streets like alcohol.

The occasion was a midnight screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, a theater that is deservedly famous for its offbeat programming, its full menu of food and booze, and its general atmosphere of merriment and revelry. But the Drafthouse is also famous for its zero-tolerance policy toward talkers. Laugh, cheer, eat, drink, enjoy yourself — just don’t talk, all right? Save your “witty” comments for later, when you are at home, where nobody will have to hear you, because you live alone, loser.

Perhaps you have already observed the paradox here. It’s hard to encourage people to drink, at midnight, while watching a lively film, without also encouraging them to make noise. It is like opening a tattoo parlor and then wondering why you spend all day dealing with white trash. Yet somehow the Drafthouse has made it work, striking the perfect balance between “lots of fun” and “too much fun, please shut up now.”

On the night in question, the film to be screened was “The F.P.,” a raucous comedy that pays homage to ’80s movies like “Road Warrior” and “Escape from New York.” It is common at these late-night SXSW/Drafthouse events for the screening to be preceded by a drinking game of some kind, which helps the audience get into the proper spirit to enjoy the film, i.e., kind of tipsy and easily amused. In accordance with that tradition, a team of “F.P.” cast and crew members and a team of audience volunteers competed to see which side could guzzle four cans of Four Loko the fastest.

What is Four Loko, you may ask, if you are a hopeless square who doesn’t know things? Four Loko is a malt-liquor beverage that was in the news recently because it contained huge amounts of both alcohol and caffeine, and was being consumed fervently by college students, as those nutrients are critical to their survival. (For a college student, drinking a can of Four Loko was like taking a multi-vitamin.) The FDA has since made the Four Loko people take out the caffeine, because drinking a lot of alcohol is okay, but drinking a lot of alcohol AND a lot of caffeine is dangerous, and now that Four Loko only has alcohol, it will be impossible for people to combine the two, because there’s no way you could drink Four Loko AND a cup of coffee, don’t be silly. Anyway, even without the caffeine, one can of Four Loko still has the same amount of alcohol as four bottles of beer, so chugging one will mess you up.

(It should be noted, for the record, that Four Loko does not taste good. One evening several months ago, some acquaintances of mine were imbibing this product in the manner most common to Portlanders, i.e., ironically. Curious, I took one (1) sip. It was like drinking someone’s backwash after they’d been eating fruit-flavored candy. On the plus side, this is how I came up with my new stripper name, Candy Backwash.)

So a handful of people from “The F.P.” and a handful of moviegoers drank a lot of Four Loko very quickly. That may sound excessive, but come on, it’s Austin. The only thing in Austin that gets abused more than alcohol is food stamps.* It was a rambunctious event, and you can understand why it might take the audience a few minutes to settle down afterward.

The Drafthouse dude introducing the film seemed to be aware of the potential problem, ending his spiel with: “Please don’t talk or f****** text during the movie. And even if you’re the executive producer of the movie, don’t talk during the movie, G**d*** it. Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy ‘The F.P.’!”

I thought: How curious that he would specifically warn the people who worked on the film not to heckle it. Surely that goes without saying! When an artist gets a show at a gallery, he does not need to be reminded not to shout obscenities at the patrons. When an author has a book signing, no one has to tell him not to befoul the pages with his excrement. Why would a filmmaker have to be told not to disrupt his own film? It runs counter to all reason!

The film began. The people affiliated with the production, who occupied an entire row of the theater, hooted appreciatively when they saw their names appear in the opening credits. This was fine. A little opening-credits hooting is normal in a situation like this. Why, you would hoot, too! Most of them quieted down once the movie got going, though they kept laughing at things that were not even intended to be funny, but which I guess reminded them of the fun times they had making the movie.

One member of the entourage took this a bit further and kept yelling things. I don’t want to single out any particular hair color or gender, but it was a blond woman. She would holler out phrases that sounded like non sequiturs but which were actually references to inside jokes between her and the other crew members.

Try to imagine how irritating it would be to encounter someone who does not understand that “inside jokes” aren’t funny unless everyone who hears them is on the inside. Her friends comprised a noisy and sizable chunk of the audience, but they were still outnumbered by regular moviegoers. If I were chatting with my friend Luscious Malone and she mentioned the Sonic chain of drive-in restaurants, and I said, “The blanket was still wrapped around the baby!,” she would laugh, and I would laugh, and we would enjoy a shared memory. That is how inside jokes work. But I wouldn’t dream of exclaiming “The blanket was still wrapped around the baby!” if a movie character mentioned Sonic, not unless Luscious Malone and I were the only people in the theater. The other audience members would think I was just shouting random collections of words. They would assume I was mentally ill.

That would have been my assumption here, too, if it weren’t obvious that the real culprit was not Tourette’s syndrome, but intoxication. The woman had not been on the official Four Loko team, but she had clearly participated in intramurals.

Perhaps you are wondering why I did not tell her to shut up. Perhaps you are aware that this is a thing that I have been known to do. The answer is complicated, but there were several factors. One, she was seated on the opposite side of the theater from me. To shush her, I’d have had to be as loud as she was, and I’d have run the risk of being as disruptive as she was. Two, I wasn’t entirely sure that she was annoying anyone but me. Nobody else was reacting to her, as far as I could tell. And three, “The F.P.” is an obnoxious, in-your-face kind of comedy. For all I knew, the rest of the audience considered the loud drunk lady’s behavior appropriate, given the circumstances, the way you’d expect to see a lot of self-cutting going on at a “Twilight” screening.

But when the movie was over, Twitter was deluged with tweets about how this loudmouth had ruined the screening. Nobody was talking about whether the movie was good or bad, only about the rowdiness of the crew. As it turns out, the woman HAD been shushed a couple times, but to no avail. She was at the level of inebriation where silence is impossible to achieve unless it is accompanied by unconsciousness. The reason the Alamo Drafthouse staff hadn’t taken action is that there was some uncertainty about whether they’re allowed to eject noisy patrons from a movie when the noisy patrons are the ones who made the movie. As I suggested earlier, this is not a problem that arises very often.

Accounts of the incident moved around the Internet with the virulence and speed of a speedy virus. It spread like whatever the online equivalent of wildfire is. My friend Jen Yamato, who writes for Movieline and participated in the Four Loko challenge, wrote two posts about it. It showed up in other blogs, too. At a film festival that was about to host the world premiere of “The Beaver,” starring Mel Gibson as a man who has a mental breakdown and starts communicating through a hand puppet, “The F.P.” is what was creating a stir.

In response, Jason Trost, the film’s star, co-writer, and co-director, issued this tweet: “Apparently Twitter hated us tonight. F*** you twitter. The FP kicked your a**!” That thought-provoking assessment was soon deleted, however, and the filmmakers sent an apology to Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse and keeper of its mysteries. The next day, Tim said on his blog that yes, the filmmakers were out of line, and yes, they should have been kicked out of their own movie. If the Drafthouse were showing “Jaws,” and Steven Spielberg himself were in the audience, dangerously intoxicated and shouting at Lorraine Gary, “YOU’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOOB!,” it would be Tim League’s recommendation that Mr. Spielberg be frogmarched out of there immediately.

Now remorseful, the once-belligerent “F.P.” guys issued a new tweet: “Shouldn’t have done a 12 hour shift at the dirty dog [that’s a local bar] before the show… apologies all around to those we bummed out. We love you, Alamo!”

And then a magical thing happened. Everyone got over it. Nobody held a grudge. Those of us who had been thinking these guys were coarse, unprofessional idiots now thought: Right on. You acted like jackasses, but then you felt bad and apologized for it. What more could anyone reasonably expect? We have all, at some point, behaved stupidly, either because we were drunk or angry or tired or stubborn or careless, or because we were actually, in point of fact, stupid. There’s no shame in screwing up. The only shame is in refusing to admit that you screwed up. I will gladly acknowledge my own errors, if I ever comit any.

[ Could I explain why “The blanket was still wrapped around the baby” is a funny thing to say when Sonic is mentioned? Yes, I could. But I will not. Because then it would no longer be an inside joke. Then it would be an outside joke.
*Alternate lines:
That may sound excessive, but come on, it’s Texas. The only thing in Texas that gets misused more than alcohol is the word “socialism.”
That may sound excessive, but come on, it’s a film festival. The only thing at a film festival that gets abused more than alcohol is voice-over narration. ]