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'Interview' screening keeps Austin weird and America, too

By Douglas Brinkley
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Brinkley: Screening of "The Interview" in Texas' capital helped "keep Austin weird"
  • He says owner of independent theaters had pushed Sony to reverse decision to shelve film
  • Owner Tim League wore a star-spangled body suit and Santa Claus cap to introduce movie
  • Brinkley: America's pop culture rallied around a low-rent satire, standing up for free expression

Editor's note: Douglas Brinkley is a professor of American history at Rice University and contributing editor to Vanity Fair. Brinkley will be a guest on "Newsroom" on CNN in the 9 a.m. ET hour Friday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- Most Americans are probably familiar with the T-Shirt slogan "Keep Austin Weird." Ever since Willie Nelson brought rednecks into an alliance with hippies back in the psychedelic '70s, Austin has milked its quirky libertarian spirit for a worldwide bonanza of free publicity. Both South by Southwest and "Austin City Limits" were born in the cradle of this stoner plea. But in recent years, the Texas capital has become corporatized, the weirdness factor replaced by Starbucks, Marriott and Chase Bank.

Yet, on Christmas Day, at the downtown Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at the corner of East Sixth and Trinity, vintage Austin weirdness came roaring back courtesy of the banned-in-Pyongyang film comedy, "The Interview," starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.

Douglas Brinkley
Douglas Brinkley

The Merry Prankster of the 1 p.m. showing was Tim League, a 45-year-old Rice University graduate and CEO of the Alamo. Wearing a rented star-spangled body suit, looking like the poor man's Evel Knievel, a Santa Claus cap festooned to his head, League orchestrated a piece of guerrilla theatrics that would have made Ken Kesey proud.

Striding onto the stage with James Brown's "Living in America" blaring from the speaker system, League introduced the bizarrely controversial "The Interview" with a stand-up comedy routine replete with unabashed patriotism, rank silliness, vaudeville shtick and Yippie absurdity.

Since the mid-1990s, League, a smart businessman-cum-showman, has helped transform Austin from a cinema backwater to an outlaw Hollywood hub. Determined to put the weird back into Austin's civic spirit, League spoofed North Korea's damaging cyberattack against Sony with Comedy Central aplomb.

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Calling 13 audience members to the stage as pre-showtime chorus leaders, handing out free cans of Budweiser and candy, League, in tongue-and-cheek fashion, introduced a video of Lee Greenwood crooning "God Bless the USA." The holiday moviegoers joined into a Christmas carol-like singalong, collectively sounding like a patriotic Sousa band. He prodded the willing audience to wave little American flags, which were handed out as souvenirs. He also had them hold up Zippo lighters as if "Free Bird" were being played by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

After this perverse round of karaoke, the main feature began, and League watched the controversial film from the aisle. There were no seats for him in the sold-out theater. "The song is the most over-the-top patriotic song I know," League later told me. "Lee Greenwood can wear that jacket and sing that song without a bit of irony. You gotta love that."

When history looks back on the whole Sony vs. North Korea tempest of recent weeks, the true heroes of the saga will be America's Independent cinema owners. League, a slacker unafraid of hackers, stepped up when Sony and mainstream theater chains pulled the funny, low-rent satire about bumbling journalists hired by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un.

Essentially his message to the Sony suits was wrapped in First Amendment sentiment: Alamo theaters, of which he owns 19, would never be intimidated by a punk North Korean dictator. In the days before Christmas, League networked with fellow members of Art House Convergence, an association of independent theater owners.

He co-signed a group petition, delivered to Sony last week, urging that "The Interview" be screened across America. "I was disappointed that Sony stepped back," he admits, but was pleased the company "regrouped" in time for Christmas Day.

Here, in Austin, at a place called the Alamo, Americans were defending their right to popular culture in all its spooky and kitschy guises.
Douglas Brinkley

His only mild regret is that the film became available in the United States on Google Play, YouTube Movies and to the customers of Microsoft's Xbox video before the Alamo got to premiere it. "It made sense though," he admits, "that Sony used digital outlets."

What impressed League about his stoked audience was the palpable unity of purpose. They came as patriots for a cause. All performances of "The Interview" sold out instantly in a community stance supporting freedom of expression in Austin. "We now consider 'The Interview' an art-house film," he laughs, "even though it's very far removed from typical art-house fare."

When I spoke with League he was beaming yuletide happiness, drinking a can of Four Loko (an energy-alcoholic beverage he calls the "perfect Christmas drink"). We discussed his all seasons' heroes -- Kroger Babb and William Castle -- both razzle-dazzle movie promoters of a bygone era. By turning "The Interview" into a Happening, in '60s parlance, League was carrying forward the iconic Babb-Castle torch. "I'm no stranger to wearing costumes or being patriotic," League says. "And everybody who bought tickets today is a goddamn, super-duper, American hero."

Just before "The Interview" began, a Woodstock Nation nostalgia swelled in the old-style theater. Only instead of marijuana the smell of wings, popcorn and fried pickles filled the air. I wondered what a Pyongyang spy would have thought of the orgy of jingoistic cheer and roadhouse food. Here, in Austin, at a place called the Alamo, Americans were defending their right to popular culture in all its spooky and kitschy guises.

Off-duty Austin police officers, full of holiday cheer, served as security for the showing. At one point, before the Greenwood video, an alarm went off. A firetruck rushed to the scene and determined it was an accident. That quick scare aside, the afternoon was a triumph of Christmas high jinks over the North Korean regime's grinch-like totalitarianism. In its own weird way, Austin did America proud.

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