Friday, September 29, 2017

The Alamo Draft House Gordian Knot

Note: I'm only posting this to give some context to my reactions regarding the massive scandal the Alamo Drafthouse Finds itself Embroiled in involving, among others, Devin Faraci and now Harry Knowles. If you don't care about any of this, or don't know the players involved, feel free to skip it all.

The first time I saw Harry Knowles was at a City Wide Garage Sale in the mid-1990s. We were walking around and looking for geeky junk and my friend pointed to their set-up and said, “Buyer Beware.”

“What?” Their set-up had a lot of interesting things on it. Some movie memorabilia, including Lobby Cards, which I was really into at the time.

“They have a reputation for selling reproductions and knock-offs as originals. And when you tell them about it, they refund your money, but put the shit back out on the table. We call them ‘Buyer Beware.’”

Good to know, I thought.

I later learned their names, and sure enough, they had a reputation around Austin amongst the other dealers and collectors in the Geek Secondary Market; the comic shops, record shops, weekend warrior dealers, etc. In other words, in a world of sharks, they were the sharks other people were careful to avoid.

Some time after that, they came into the comic shop where I worked; scratch that, they swaggered in. Their whole demeanor was one of “prove it,” and they were very careful to inspect us, what we were selling, and the look of the store. (Long Story Short: we’d taken over the business from long-time owners and made a few changes to the place—for those of you keeping up, it was the beginning of Austin Books, Mk.II).

They eventually made some small talk with us, bought some supplies (the go-to move for anyone casing a new store) and bid us adieu. Thereafter, we’d see them approximately once a year, as they checked in on us and looked for, well, I don’t know what, exactly, but they always made small purchases and that was it.

It was several years later (after I left the store, moved away, and moved back) that they made an appearance one day. Harry was excited. He’d just started a website, see? And he gleefully told me about some spy he knew from LA that sent him pictures know, I don’t even remember what—but that he ran them and the studio was sooooo pissed at him, and he was just, you know, a fan, sharing pictures, and it wasn’t HIS fault if they weren’t supposed to be released, how did HE know? He then told me I should come check out the site.

I did.

It was terrible. Badly written, weirdly personal, not at all professional, distractingly disingenuous, and full of some real sycophantic, nearly slavish praise, for everything Harry was writing. It didn’t make sense to me.

I knew that his dad had tenuous connections to “Hollywood,” in that he worked on some films that were made in Texas, but they made way more of this connection than maybe a guy who worked, uncredited, in the prop department, fully deserved. Even before Austin became a Mecca Hot Spot for Texas filmmakers, it was always a quiet underground for Texas filmmakers, and actors. I wasn’t impressed.

Harry’s rep was largely folded around his father’s credits, such as they were, and so sure, they probably did know some folks behind the scenes working on movies. Again, I say, so what? Someone snaps pics of the actor on the set and you publish them. Basically, the same thing the National Enquirer does.

To borrow a quote from another,
better movie, "Uh, not really, no."
I hate-read the site for a while, trying to get a handle on it. And I was reading just at the right time read about Harry’s visit to the set of Armageddon, wherein they walked him around, and he got to meet Bruce Willis in his space suit, and he spent time at the craft services table, and on and on and on, but nothing really about the movie. Just his impressions of stuff. It was really amateurish, wide-eyed, wonderment. There were several of those travelogues, and they were all very embarrassing. On one of these trips, he split his pants on the set—and then stuck around after. Zero pride. Zero filters.

It was around this time that his “reviews” began to take on these glowing tones. You should have heard him gush about Armageddon, a film that might have been somewhat entertaining, but was nowhere near the emotional, cathartic experience he made it out to be. He was duly excoriated on the site, which brought his defenders running to say, “you don’t know, you don’t understand, you can’t do any better, etc.” It was appalling. I kept thinking to myself, “How is it that Hollywood is taking this guy seriously?”

I wrote about it, in an early email article that I was sending around—the first version of Finn’s Wake, back when I had an AOL address. And oh, God, did I get blowback. See, I was one of the ones who just didn’t get it. I didn’t know anything. I was not privy to any of the great plans, great deals, great schemes that Harry was planning on giving the world, all for us, and by tearing him down, I was a real asshole. What had they ever done to me?

Nothing, frankly. But the Knowles, as a group, were sketchy when I first saw them, they acted sketchy every time I interacted with them, and now they were profiting from being sketchy online. Oh, and the kid couldn’t write. Not well. It bothered me that his reviews were more about Harry than why a movie was or wasn’t good. It went beyond subjective. It was wildly inconsistent, because he back tracked, issued second reviews that nullified the first review, and demonstrated over and over that he was not above being wined and dined in exchange for saying nice things. Voice a criticism and his jackbooted-thugs-online followers piled on with hateful, spiteful, and cheerfully horrible attacks. It just wasn’t an interaction I was interested in having, especially not on a daily basis. So, I tuned out and stopped watching the tire fire.

The last time I saw him in the store was around the time that Dean Devlin’s new Godzilla movie was about to drop. Harry was bragging to me that “Dean kept trying to get me to say nice things about the lead actress in the movie, who, you know, he’s dating right now, but I’m not gonna...I mean, hey man, I’ve got some standards, here. I can’t know, because we’re friends, and all...”

After telling me that story, they bought some comic book supplies and left.

Faraci at SDCC from 2007. Exactly how I pictured him.
By that time, I was reading CHUD, a Georgia-based movie fan site, this one dedicated to Horror movies. The Wild West mentality was in full swing over there, as well. One of the biggest shit-stirrers was a Journeyman Asshole named Devin Faraci, a man who seemed dedicated to taking his Asshole Credentials to the Professional level. He was, if nothing else, a better writer than Harry, but he had a style of analysis that I have come to think of as Khan-textualizing. You know the quote. “You’ve managed to kill just about everyone else, but like a poor marksman, you Keep. Missing. The Target.”

That’s Faraci’s film commentary. Impressive. Showy. Makes good points. Always screws up the landing. He can’t stick the dismount. He always devolves into some petulant version of his own worst personality quirks, and manages to alienate careful readers. If, like most people reading on the Internet, you read the first few paragraphs and skim the rest, he comes off as a genius. But it’s in the skim where the Emperor Has No Clothes.

Apparently, though, he could talk a good game, because he next showed up at Badass Cinema. Later, it became Birth. Death. Movies. In both cases, it was hard to get past his now weapons-grade asshole-ish behavior. I never met him in person, but I am positive it would have been very hard to not have a go at him after all of the hateful shit he wrote online over the years.

Around this time, the Alamo Draft House was becoming a thing. To die-hard movie fans, their "No Texting" policy was a godsend. They were militant about it, and with good reason: it was a real problem in Austin, a tech-savvy city, at the time. It probably still is. But whatever, it was this place that was just not like the corporate-driven multiplexes. They "got it." My first experience with the Draft House was going to a midnight show of the movie Shaft. The ticket price included a 40 oz. malt liquor. Genius. And the place was paaaaaaaacked full of scruffy guys with unkempt beards, all singing the theme from Shaft, and I realized that not only had I found my people, but my place to watch movies.

This is purely from the standpoint of the outsider looking in. I have dealt with the Draft House professionally at BookPeople before on several occasions where we cross-promoted events, and me and my business partner Steve got to sit down with co-founder Tim League and talk to him about the perils of running a movie theater. He gave us some good advice. Probably doesn't even remember meeting me, and wouldn't recognize me to this day.

But I was never cool enough to be at any of these parties. Always had to work during FantasticFest. Didn't WANT to go to the Butt-Numb-A-Thon (see above). Never an insider. Never really wanted to be. Mostly because of the people I saw in those orbits that I wanted nothing to do with. Not when there were so many other people I could be working with that I did like, that weren't assholes. 

It was—again—weird to me that Tim would want to partner with both Harry and Devin. But they brought with them a certain extra value, in the form of loyal followers and large platforms from which to promote the Alamo Draft House. I just assumed at the time that it was a smart decision by League to use them to get the word out about the cool things the Draft House was doing.

I got busy doing my own stuff. I had zero interest in dealing with either of these people, and they were the people that I would need to deal with if I wanted to be involved in the Austin Film Community in some way other than as a fan. So, that’s what I did. Years later, folks finally began to question what Harry was doing. In a massive, two-part takedown, Film Threat flayed Harry for all of the things, and more, that I saw wrong with the site (Part 1 here, Part 2 here). Vindication was great, but by then, Knowles was worth 700K a year. And laughing all the way to the bank. It just felt like a scam from the get-go. Sketchy. Buyer Beware.

I’m only posting this because folks have wondered at my glee regarding these recent allegations. It’s more than mere schadenfreude on my part. It turned out, no one liked Devin Faraci at all, but because he held some weird perceived power, and people thought they had to kow-tow to him, they let him be an asshole instead of blowing the whistle and ordering him out of the pool.

I think it comes down to this: I don’t like bullies and I don’t like assholes. And I never have. I saw these guys for what they were from the start. I don’t think it merits a victory lap, per se, but I am very pleased to know that my gut-instincts were correct. I have since stopped doubting myself, relying on my ability to size people and things up accordingly, and it’s just good to know that I’ve had that ability for longer than I thought.

As for the Alamo Draft House, well, I really hope Tim can make the necessary changes to ensure this doesn't happen again. I think he can, and it's not that hard to do, in the grand scheme. My advice to him, step one, is to not associate yourself with sketchy people and assholes. That's a really good start.

Now both of these guys are “getting help” and I hope they do. They have apologies to make, and a lot of bad shit to atone for, and it’s not up to me whether or not they are forgiven. But—and let me say this out loud—even if they are forgiven, it would be a grievous mistake to re-install them anywhere close to where they were. Leopards do not change their spots. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even sober, even with 12-step programs completed, even with apologies made, and victims forgiving...even if all of that were to happen, my gut tells me they’d still be sketchy, still be an asshole. And this time, I’m trusting my gut.

Minor Edit: correcting the location of CHUD.

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