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Any Given Wednesday

One man, 10 years, some seriously sublime weirdness

By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 18, 2011

Lars Nilsen of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas
Lars Nilsen of Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas
Photo by John Anderson

As mainstream Hollywood filmmaking continues to produce, year after year, a seemingly endless assembly line of bland mediocrities, film-going in Austin remains stalwart in its embrace of the good, the bad, and the weird. You can thank Lars Nilsen in large part for that. As a programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Nilsen brings in the good stuff, often reaching out to fellow cineastes and 35mm collectors to score a 12-reel shot of cinematic intensity so powerful that lives are changed, if not for the better then almost certainly for the, um, freakier. It is a gift fewer and fewer metropolitan moviegoers can lay claim to in this age of me-so-lonely home entertainment hypersystems and those legions of nattering nabobs extolling the virtues of Netflix, Redbox, and Blu-ray onanism.

Next week marks the 10th anniversary of Nilsen's signature weekly midnight marquee event at the Drafthouse, the revered Weird Wednesday screenings, which have effectively served as a dark and shining beacon to those seeking 24fps hedonism, horror, and heaving heroines sporting humongous, ah, Heckler & Kochs.

"I'm gonna kill a bunch of people ..."

– William Devane as Maj. Charles Rane in Rolling Thunder

There's more to Weird Wednesday than just bullets, blood, and breasts – although there have been plenty of all three of those old 42nd Street food groups over the past decade. Weird Wednesday has come to encompass all manner of films and filmmakers, representing every genre and every aesthetic, from pre-Age of Irony exploitation actioners and post-bebop, beatnik-ballyhoo B-pictures to underseen (and occasionally unseen) classics from Hollywood's late-Sixties/mid-Seventies easy riders and raging bulls revolution. And all of them, dreck- and dream-factory fantasies alike, get equal treatment under Nilsen's scholarly, exhibitionistic zeal and spiel. His preshow intros and elucidations, occasionally with tongue planted firmly in cheek, often rival those of that other masterful, Alamo-friendly auteur, Quentin Tarantino, albeit minus the Hawaiian-print shirts.

Where else, and with who else, could you bask in the sublime youthquake silliness of George Axelrod's intoxicatingly wiggy Lord Love a Duck (1966) and then show up a few weeks later to watch God himself (aka Warren Oates) bring you the head of Alfredo Garcia?

A partial rundown of Weird Wednesday screenings that blew my mind so hard the projectionist had to squeegee the back-spatter off his little window: Monte Hellman's deranged Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, Jesus Franco's Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, Don Siegel's Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau at his most Matthau-ian and Joe Don Baker at his sorta-svelte sleaziest), Arthur Marks blaxploitation shocker J.D.'s Revenge, John "Bud" Cardos' Kingdom of the Spiders (witness William Shatner's "tarantula dance"), John Boorman's surrealistic masterpiece Point Blank (Lee Marvin's scowl alone deserved an Oscar), and a smashed, trashed Dennis Hopper in Philippe Mora's Aussie import Mad Dog Morgan. And that's just what I can recall with what's left of my cerebral cortex. The list goes on and on, every Wednesday at the stroke of midnight at the Alamo Ritz.

"This motion picture is an act of pure aggression."

– Tagline, Lord Love a Duck

So how did a lone exploitation enthusiast manage to transform what's traditionally one of the slowest nights of the week for theatre-going into one of the most hallowed of all of the 512's many movie-house must-gos? It began with Alamo founder Tim League and his penchant for salvaging massive troves of 35mm film prints from across the country, many of which would have been tossed in the ocean (literally) were it not for his passion and perseverance.

As Nilsen relates it: "About 10 years ago, Tim decided to start acquiring film prints. He had a few that he'd picked up here and there, and the possibility of buying a big lot of prints, maybe 150 of them, at about $30 a pop, cropped up."

League drove a U-Haul up to Missouri, where this particular cache of prints was found, packed 'em up, and began the drive back home.

However, "because the truck was so loaded down with prints," says Nilsen, "every time Tim would get to a hill he would have to get out and jettison a few of them on the side of the road. As he was driving back to Austin, in the dementia of the night, he started to wonder why he did this and what he was going to do with all these films. The more he thought about it, the more he realized, 'Hey, Wednesday's a slow night, why not have a get-together, a little club, and just watch these prints' – many of which we had never seen. It would be a process of discovery for all of us, including the audience. And that's exactly what he did."

Nilsen, for his part, had been an Alamo regular since day one, back when League would show up with a clutch of early Alamo monthly calendars in hand at the Kinko's where Nilsen was working at the time. Eventually the two got to talking and immediately built upon their shared love of obscure cinema. It was, as Claude Rains' Capt. Renault noted, "the beginning of a beautiful friendship." It was also the birth of Weird Wednesday.

Nilsen: "That original Weird Wednesday had the looseness of a club. People would wander in, not like what was playing, and wander out. I can still hear the sound of, you know, boots walking out in those early days. We still hear it occasionally.

Joe Sarno's <i>All the Sins of Sodom</i>
Joe Sarno's All the Sins of Sodom

"One of the most fun parts of those early screenings was after the film. You'd stand in the lobby at 409 Colorado and hear people talk about the film, you know? 'I can't believe that part where ....' Because of my photographic memory I would find myself holding court because I had seen most of these films and had read Incredibly Strange Films or Psychotronic Films back in the Eighties. I found myself in the unfamiliar position of being the expert."

As League and Nilsen's loose partnership progressed, so did the programming. Many of the early Weird Wednesday titles were atrocious prints, so pinked-out and raggedy they appeared to have been shot from inside one of Guillermo del Toro's pickled fetuses.

"Eventually," Nilsen says, "and I don't remember exactly when it happened, I noticed that I was actually programming the entire series. Those were the wild, Wild West times of Weird Wednesday. I hadn't actually been hired by Tim, but I'd do everything related to Weird Wednesday, and I'd also make the preshow VHS tapes. I was just doing it for kicks, and it was fun, being part of the community, being part of the scene."

League hired Nilsen in 2004, and the rest is midweek, midnight history.

"We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man! ... And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time. ... We are gonna have a party."

– Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues in The Wild Angels

There's always been the question of what, exactly, makes for a Weird Wednesday movie. There's no pat answer. Nilsen has screened true genius (Jack Hill's Switchblade Sisters) and true madness masquerading as genius (Duke Mitchell's Gone With the Pope) and everything in between, including the likes of Toho Studios' maverick monster-maker Ashiro Honda's kaiju eiga melee Destroy All Monsters, Brian de Palma's Dressed To Kill, and Larry Hagman's (yes, that Larry Hagman) excruciating, delightful sequel to the "Steven" McQueen career-launchpad The Blob, titled Beware! The Blob. So, you know, it's a bit of a magic crapshoot as to what's lurking around the corner on any given Wednesday.

"I suppose that if there's a singular philosophy behind Weird Wednesday," Nilsen says, "it's that it shouldn't be boring and it should be the kind of movie that an active viewer enjoys. I think so many movies – and this is my problem with so many of the big special-effects epics – are really set up for this passive viewing experience. You just lay back, and you let it wash over you. Well, I hate that. I don't want to lay back and let it wash over me. And I don't ever want to turn off my mind. Fun, for me, is not turning off my mind. Fun for me is having my mind on and engaged."

Indeed. The past decade has seen Weird Wednesday evolve, bloblike, from its vaguely defined origins as a loosely defined, 409 Colorado seat-filler into a weekly pilgrimage by and for hardcore fans of outré cinema, old-school Alamo patrons, and a constant stream of newcomers Nilsen refers to as "almost like a new freshman class coming in." And what's a freshman class without a seriously kickass guest or two?

"She's just some young, American housewife. Just an ordinary, young, American housewife, getting her kicks."

– Rebecca Brooke as Carole in Joe Sarno's Confessions of a Young American Housewife

The Alamo is deservedly famous for its ever-expanding roster of surprise (and preannounced) guest directors, actors, screenwriters, and effects masters, but under Nilsen's apparently sleep-free guidance, Weird Wednesday has managed to corral some of the most important filmmakers you've possibly never heard of (but should have). Last April, pioneering feminist filmmaker Stephanie Rothman (The Student Nurses; see "Exploitation's Glass Ceiling," April 9, 2010) showed up to introduce an emotional double bill of Student Nurses and Group Marriage.

"[She] had never, ever gone out and done this sort of thing," explains Nilsen, "even though people had been trying for years to get her to attend conventions and whatnot. She just found the whole fandom aspect of that repellent. I sent her an e-mail with a very heartfelt, respectful appreciation of her films, and she agreed to come to the Alamo. She kept saying, and I've heard this so many times from guests: 'What a great audience! They were so present, and you're so lucky to have an audience like this.' She was ecstatic to see her movies get that kind of respect. Because, let's face it, when these filmmakers look at these movies, they often can't see beyond the budgetary limitations they had to endure and they're probably far more critical than we are."

And then there was the appearance of Joe Sarno, just months before his death in April of last year. Sarno was a pioneering "sexploitation" director, although, as Nilsen is quick to note, Sarno's emotionally and sexually fraught psychodramas are closer to Arthur Schnitzler than, say, John Cassavetes. "I was so honored to have Joe Sarno [All the Sins of Sodom] come out to the theatre. He wasn't the most obscure filmmaker in the world, but I did find that most of my audience had never heard of him and was really excited about his aesthetic. He was really old and barely getting around by that time, and when I saw him in the airport, I thought, 'Oh, no, this is going to be such a shame to bring this guy up on stage because he's so old and frail and the audience is going to feel bad for him.' But once he got up on stage, he became so animated by the crowd and so present in the moment that I had tears in my eyes. I really believe that he hadn't been that alive, that animated, and that engaged in a long time. And that really meant a lot to me."

After the lights come up at the Alamo Ritz around 2am every Thursday morning, it's easy to see why Nilsen's dream of screening (almost) free, (nearly) unknown, and (often) forgotten screen gems, rough though some of them may be, has been such a wild, weird success story. (Lines around the block and sold-out shows are common.) You can find the answer on the faces of the audience members as they file out of the theatre and congregate in the lobby or grab a smoke outside under the strobing marquee. They gather in groups and jaw about what they've just seen, passionately, angrily, ecstatically. It's the thrill of discovering something new that's, often as not, not so new after all. But memorable. Or shocking. Or inspiring. All of the above. Together.

"I look out into the audience," Nilsen says, smiling, "and it's like seeing the old Roman theatre, where class boundaries and age and gender all came together for a common, communal spectacle. People talk about the glory days of the New York City grindhouse era and 42nd Street, and that's another place where social and class boundaries fell away. I think, in a way, people come together [at Weird Wednesday] where there's no differentiation between people who are watching these movies because they're educated or because they're film students or because, you know, they're boob enthusiasts. Everyone comes together for this magical common experience, these strangers in the dark."


The Alamo will commemorate Weird Wednesday's 10th anniversary on March 2 with a live set from Austin's all-animal supergroup the Charles Edward Cheese Band.

Go to our Picture in Picture blog (austinchronicle.com/pip) for Lars Nilsen's Top 5 Weird Wednesday picks.

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