An independent film documents the life and times of a beloved campus hangout. Scott McLemee loiters with intent.
The café, located one block west of the University of Texas at Austin, was called Les Amis. Which, when pronounced with a certain drawl, or after a few Shiner Bocks, sounded like “Lazy Me.” It was just around the corner from the house where, as legend has it, Janis Joplin had lived during her student days. It would be nice to imagine that she might have visited Les Amis, but that is a stretch: It only opened its doors in 1970, about the time she died. In principle, though, yes, it was her kind of place. The café was the definitive landmark of the area known as West Campus.
Like any real neighborhood, West Campus was not just a place but a state of mind. It was a pole of attraction for people who endured living in Texas only by going into a kind of internal emigration. And Les Amis was a vital part of the cultural infrastructure. For one thing, the food was cheap. Generations of semi-successful musicians, struggling artists, and would-be writers budgeted their lives around the bowl of beans and rice (with cheese, if you paid extra). And because the entire wait staff seemed to be on perpetual cigarette break, it never felt like you were being rushed out the door. You could read a book without being hassled. Or write one, for that matter.
It was not, strictly speaking, a part of UT. But in no sense did it exist apart from the university. Les Amis was, so to speak, a non-academic outcropping of what Pierre Bourdieu called skhole -- that is, the open-ended space-time of scholastic life, in which questions can be raised and explored in a free discussion that evades any outside demands.
It's not that Les Amis was a unique outpost of this. On the contrary, any decent campus must have such pockets of creative impracticality -- places where people mingle, where loitering is permitted, even encouraged. They are the laboratories where conversation becomes a kind of experiment, and where you can opt out of normality for a while. (Maybe forever.)
Many a dissertation got drafted at Les Amis, or at least studiously procrastinated over. In the corner sat Rock Savage (at any given time, the drummer for five different bands) having breakfast at two in the afternoon, inscrutable behind his shades. At a table facing the sidewalk -- a few feet from the skinheads with skateboards -- you might find a Habermasian and a Derridean making an elaborate show of tolerating one another’s pathetically inadequate arguments. Meanwhile, inside, the ambience was forever that of an unwashed ashtray. In the booth near the door was a young couple that had recently broken up, doing a post-postmortem on their relationship, in lieu of burying it and moving on.
Such a life has its own tempo, its own logic. It can be liberating, but it can also be stultifying. You might leave it with a sense of relief -- only to find, years later, that a moment of nostalgia will blindside you.
I left Austin in 1988. Ten years later, meeting a fellow Les Amis alum at a party in Washington, D.C., I learned that the café had gone out of business in 1997. It was a shock to hear this: In some vague way, I always expected to return one day for a visit. There had been something sustaining about the fantasy of once again ordering the rice and beans with cheese, and the pot of coffee they brought to your table -- then spending the afternoon trying to get the bill from the waiter.
Now that was impossible. I felt grief, but also disgust and anger. There was no imaginary escape route from a life of ambition, responsibility, and deadlines.
And things got worse. The spot where Les Amis had once stood, my friend reported, was now occupied by a Starbucks. Fate was really laying it on thick.
But thanks to the efforts of Nancy Higgins, a young filmmaker in Austin, some of the memories have been preserved in a documentary, "Viva Les Amis." For now, the film doesn’t have a distributor, though it is available for purchase on DVD through a Web site. Higgins also indicates, in an e-mail note, that she is selling it “out of the trunk of my car.”
I can well believe she means that literally: "Viva Les Amis" has the feel of a labor of love – something made without much thought for whether it could be marketed. Higgins spent four years and something close to $40,000 making it. “No one ever got paid for their time,” she says, “including me and the people who helped me shoot it.”
Breaking even on the project would be nice, but it may take a while. “I have debt from the movie,” Higgins told me. “But I’ll pay it off someday.”
For now, though, she has earned the glory that goes with retrieving something valuable from the wreckage of progress, so called. Drawing on interviews with staff and customers, video footage shot during the 1980s, and a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs taken by Alan Pogue across the café’s three decades, Higgins evokes the feeling of community that, for many people around the university, made Les Amis a home away from home.
Almost literally so, in some cases. One of its denizens indicates that his record for hanging out there was 12 hours. Another interview subject recalls sleeping on the floor after it had closed for the night. The inner mysteries of Les Amis are revealed to outsiders. There was, for example, a walled-in area behind the café where the staff enjoyed beer, various smokable substances, and the occasional moment of fornication. (That would certainly tend to explain some things about the service.)
Higgins clearly has a feel for the place, so I asked her how she came to make the film. As a philosophy major at UT, she says, she spent a lot of time at the café, whether studying or otherwise. After graduating in 1994, she faced the perennial question of what you do with a liberal arts degree. You can probably see where this is going: For the next three years, she waited tables at Les Amis.
“My parents were so pleased,” she recalls (sarcasm mode on). “I took history and theory film classes at U.T., and read and did yoga and lived the relaxed Austin life. I stopped thinking about the future and just lived for awhile.”
She then headed to Emory University to do graduate work on avant garde and documentary film -- returning to Austin in 1999 with a master’s degree. After two years of watching other people’s films, she wanted to make one of her own.
“So,” she says, "I began working on a documentary about Les Amis -- a place that I missed terribly upon returning to Austin. Sometimes it's just the perfect night to go there, and you can't. That makes me really sad. I just wanted to preserve some of Les Amis before it disappeared from everyone's collective memory. I knew I wasn't the only one who grieved the loss.”
While various still photographs and home videos helped document the history of the café, nothing really captures the mood of the place like Richard Linklater’s " Slacker," which was a breakthrough independent film when it was released in 1991. That film had the misfortune to get swept up in the whole “Generation X” phenomenon, which had the effect of making the quiet and idiosyncratic enclave of West Campus seem like some kind of prefabricated lifestyle.
A few of the most memorable scenes in "Slacker" were shot at Les Amis -- and Linklater gave Higgins permission to use those clips in her documentary. “He knows how hard it is to secure rights,” she says. “At the time I asked him, he owned the rights to "Slacker," so we signed the paperwork and he let me use the scenes.” Linklater also included an extensive promotional spot for "Viva Les Amis" when the DVD edition of "Slacker" was released.
Higgins has done more than put together a video scrapbook. "Viva Les Amis" is also an essay on development -- on how the texture of life changes when a small business disappears, replaced by a corporate chain.
She interviews employees who work at the Starbucks that now occupies the block. They’ve heard rumors that another coffee shop once existed in the area, but don’t know anything about it. Sic transit gloria mundi, of course -- no surprise there. But it is certainly striking to listen to the young baristas as they describe what it is like to work there: the exacting dress code, the precisely formulated rules for interacting with customers, the system of corporate spying that makes sure each drink is served at the same temperature.
You can’t imagine a poetry reading taking place in such an environment. No doubt it is more efficient and profitable than Les Amis ever was. But the drive to uniformity and perfect top-down control seems joyless, no matter how much Bob Marley they play over the loudspeaker. I kept thinking of a scene from "Slacker" in which a local eminence named Doug the Slug stared into a video camera, announcing: “Every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”
I haven’t been back to Austin, and wondered about the changes reflected in "Viva Les Amis." It seemed like a good time to reconnect with Michael King, who was an assistant professor of English at UT when I met him in the early 1980s. Today King is the news editor for The Austin Chronicle, the local alternative weekly.
He remembers long lunches and late nights at the café, “drinking and talking with students and friends or other faculty, talking in the way that only a college community can do. I miss it.” But the city has grown, and the university helped drive the transformation.
“Austin and UT were simply much smaller then,” he says. “Although 30,000 students were plenty, they did not overwhelm the UT area in the way that 50,000 do.... It meant that sidewalk life around the university was a little sleepier, a little friendlier.... West Campus in particular has just been overwhelmed by numbers. The high-rise private dorms pour out students, night and day, and the street crowds can seem like Manhattan, without any of the amenities.”
He points out that there are new venues with something of the old Les Amis feel, such as Ruta Maya or Café Mundi -- the latter, for example, being the scene of a recent literary reading/oil-wrestling contest. But such places have, he says, “been physically pushed away from the campus, which, close in, is very much a crowded, rushed, gritty place.” In "Viva Les Amis," Nancy Higgins interviews the proprietor of Café Mundi, who says she worries that Starbucks will decide to open a shop down the street.
So far, the documentary has not been screened at film festivals -- and Higgins says she can’t afford to apply to any more, because doing so is expensive. It seems like a film that will find its audience, over time. “I like the idea of taking it on a tour of campuses,” she told me, “mainly to college towns like Austin that may be experiencing similar growing pains. But I haven't had a chance to try that yet.”
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