Boston's Alloy Orchestra scores Metropolis
EL PASO, TEXAS - It's the West Texas city that Whole Foods
forgot, though the chain started up in Austin.
Trader Joe's also has snubbed this blue-collar, poverty-socked metropolis with
its majority Mexican-American population. Even All the Pretty Horses author
Cormac McCarthy, a long-time citizen, has gone up the road to the fashionable
environs of Santa Fe, New Mexico. "El
Paso has been described as the sweatiest town in America, also
the most illiterate," a local explained, standing in the 102 degree
summer sun. And movie-knowledgeable? Landmark Theatres also stay clear,
and nobody can remember the last arthouse, if ever there was one.
The mood of the city? Very friendly,
surprisingly upbeat, considering that just a few blocks away, across a bridge
and a border crossing, lies a genuine heart of darkness: Juarez, Mexico, the
most frightening and murderous city in the world, including Baghdad. Many El
Pasoans have friends and close relatives who reside there amidst the
killing-fields drug war, and it's a deep worry every day.
Curiously, all the factors above, negative
and positive, seem to contribute to this: an unspoiled El Paso extraordinarily grateful for an
offbeat city film fest, the Plaza Classic Film Festival. In its third
year, August 5-15, the Festival-- privately funded, a valiant, improbable
gamble when it started up-- has positively exploded with success. How many
festivals in America
can make this brag? Audiences of 1200 people and more routinely show up for the
"Every time I go to the grocery store,
people come up and thank me," said Charles Horak, a local businessman and radio
film critic who programs the festival.
Horak's passion is classic Hollywood cinema, from the 1930s through the 1970s. His
obsessive mantra: "Spectacular movies should be seen only on the big screen."
And this is what he has to offer El Pasoans: the elegant, bejeweled,
astonishingly beautiful Plaza Theatre, a 1930 motion picture palace restored at
a cost of $15 million dollars as the Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Center.
2,410 seats, blinking stars in the ceiling, a one-thousand pipe Wurlitzer organ
playing before the movies, and the largest screen anyone has seen in their
Horak's vision: this restored theatre is
the idyllic place to show off restored 35mm prints of great, old-time Hollywood movies. His audience certainly agreed, as, this
year, 1200 El Pasoans showed up to view big-big-screen showing of Jaws, 2,000
to watch The Godfather. Other successful screenings: Tarzan, the
Ape Man, Forbidden Planet, Pillow Talk. And if they have little
experience with silent cinema, 2,000 were there, including many collegiates, to
Alloy Orchestra perform their original score accompanying Fritz Lang's
renovated 1926 Metropolis. The standing ovation went on for many minutes, and,
afterward, the Alloy trio were surrounded by awed, impressed El Pasoans.
"Alloy has never before played in Texas (one of the few states we've
missed so far) and the audience clearly didn't know what to expect," said Alloy's Ken Winokur via email. "Imagine their surprise when three guys start banging on pipes and
plumbing fixtures. Then imagine their disbelief when they realized that
they were having a wonderful time. It's still a secret in some parts
of the world -- silent films, with a good live accompaniment, are
And it seems the feeling is mutual: "The Alloy guys told me they want to come
back next year," Horak said.
Horak's other strategy for his festival is
to bring to El Paso
old-time movie stars and filmmakers. This year, Peter Bogdanovich came to town
to screen his West Texas-set The Last Picture Show, and Nancy Olsen, who
played William Holden's abandoned girlfriend, offered her memories as the last
surviving cast member of the 1950 Sunset Blvd. And there was Debbie Reynolds,
frail in life, a bubbly trooper on stage, who cued interviewer Nick Clooney
what to ask her about her philandering, one-time singer husband.
Clooney: "Was Eddie Fisher interested in
you in Singin' in the Rain?"
Reynolds:"He was interested in Elizabeth
Seemingly, the whole house of 2,000
By the end of this year's Plaza Classic
Film Festival, a buoyant Charles Horack was planning ahead to 2011.
The original 1971 Willy Wonka on the big screen? Perhaps. More still-pumping
ex-Hollywood stars? "I know I want to show the 1959 Ben-Hur," Horak
said. "I've watched it three times, and it's the most intelligent of all
the 1950s studio Biblical epics."