Viva Les Amis (2005)

Viva Les Amis: 2005, dir. Nancy Higgins. Seen at Alamo Downtown (May 4).
Hey, did you know that Austin was a haven of peace and love and groovy local hangouts and wonderfulness until 1990 when bam! overnight, it became an Evil Corporate Monstrosity?
If you saw Viva Les Amis, that’s what you might think.
Since I moved to Austin in 1991, I guess I missed all the good stuff. Maybe I should just leave for Dallas or Houston and get it over with.
All right, all right. I did like Viva Les Amis, a documentary about the crazy little cafe near the UT campus that was open from 1970-1997. Les Amis Cafe is one of the settings featured in the movie Slacker. The documentary was less than an hour long and it was a lot of fun at times. I wish it had been less heavy-handed with its anti-development message, though.

Viva Les Amis was especially fun to see at Alamo Downtown in a sold-out theater with a lot of people who had worked there, or who knew the people interviewed in the film.
The documentary focuses on Newman Stribling, who managed Les Amis Cafe for 27 years, and who now drives a cab in Austin. The movie adopts the charming conceit of filming interviewees as they get into Newman’s cab and he drives around town. The interviewees are mostly former Les Amis staff with a few longtime regulars thrown in for good measure.
(Before the movie started, I saw a man in an obviously fake beard and Panama hat sidle into the theater, taking a seat in the sofas on the back row. After the movie ended I realized it was probably Newman, since someone mentioned he was attending the film incognito.)
Viva Les Amis treats its human subjects with respect, even when interviewing Starbucks employees. Les Amis Cafe and the funky building next to it were torn down in 1998 and replaced by the Court of Three Sisters building (as a former New Orleanian, I am totally insulted by that name and motif), which houses a Starbucks with an outdoor deck right on the corner where the Les Amis patio used to be.
During part of the movie, interviews with Starbucks employees about their dress code, menu, and training are contrasted with interviews of former Les Amis employees about the same topics, and photos of Les Amis staff in various stages of undress and wild behavior.
Apparently Les Amis was a wild place to work or hang out during the 1970s and 1980s. Everyone ate lots of beans and rice and cheese (the cheap signature dish of the cafe) and drank and had sex and the world was a wonderful place. One staff member described the core group of Les Amis as being like the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but with lots of alcohol and drugs.
The many, many photos of Les Amis from the late 1970s through 1990, and on the day the cafe closed in 1997, are the heart of Viva Les Amis. Alan Pogue took the photographs and they are joyful and poignant and sweet and a little crazy at times. The interviews with Les Amis staff and regulars, as well as some other influential customers of the time, are also very good. Richard Linklater puts in his two cents’ worth (and also allowed the movie to use footage from Slacker), and Gibby Haynes shows up too. (This is the third movie in two months in which I have seen Gibby interviewed. I guess I should be grateful he isn’t at the dentist in this one.)
I enjoyed the sense of family among Les Amis staff and regulars that was evident from the photos and interviews. The movie was obviously made with great affection for its subject.
However, the filmmakers insisted on pushing the message, again and again, that Austin was a marvelous town until corporate development took over and shut down every single cool, funky, locally owned establishment in the city, making it a nightmare of homogeneity. The beginning of the movie is a nostalgic look at Austin before 1990, almost like a fairy tale, with shots of the Varsity Theater and Liberty Lunch and their corporate replacements.
Viva Les Amis also spends a lot of time punching Starbucks. However, it wasn’t Starbucks that was directly responsible for Les Amis closing. The owner of the Les Amis property tripled the rents and forced Newman to shut the place down. The movie never reveals who this owner was. Isn’t he one of the culprits? Instead we get more bashing of Starbucks, which is too easy a target.
Viva Les Amis did briefly show a couple of local coffeehouses that have remained open despite the evils of business development, such as Cafe Mundi and Spider House. I wish the movie spent a little more time showing us the great local places that are still throughout Austin, rather than focusing on the places that are closed. Better yet, I think the movie would have been fine without harping on this angle at all, focusing instead on the tightly knit “family” of Les Amis.
One noticeable gap in the documentary was the period of time from 1990-1997, shortly before the cafe closed. The film includes no photos from that time. I don’t know if Alan Pogue wasn’t in Austin, or if he got tired of taking pictures of Les Amis, or if the director didn’t think that was an interesting time to explore in the movie. She was an employee during that time, so I find it surprising that she does not cover that era at all.
It made me wonder if Les Amis was in a period of decline after 1990, if it lost popularity, if it just wasn’t as colorful or interesting during that time. It must have achieved some small notoriety because of Slacker—I know Quack’s did. Who knows? My point is that the documentary doesn’t tell us.
I went to Les Amis a few times while I was in grad school (1991-1993) and I remember it as a quiet campus hangout where you could get a cheap meal late at night. A little pretentious for me—I preferred Texadelphia, GM Steakhouse (mmmmm), or Mad Dog & Beans for meals, and Kerbey Lane for late-night coffee and studying. Obviously I was too late for the strip poker and Butthole Surfers era.
It may be that some of the people interviewed for the movie worked at Les Amis in the 1990s, but exact years are rarely specifically mentioned. While captions inform us that So-and-So was a cook or a waitress for 2 years or 10 years, they don’t reveal which years those were, exactly. We can’t figure out if any of these people worked together or knew each other.
On the other hand, Viva Les Amis was not made for a big theatrical release. It was made to appeal to people who loved Les Amis Cafe and were sorry to see it go. It succeeds perfectly on this level. The people who miss Les Amis Cafe obviously would take great pleasure in hissing at Starbucks every time it appeared on screen, and lamenting that Austin just isn’t the same.
Alamo Downtown plans to show Viva Les Amis again in June. The director says she will sell DVD off the movie Web site,, later this summer. However, if you are going to see Viva Les Amis, Alamo Downtown is the ideal place to go. After all, it’s cool and funky and locally owned, and that’s what this documentary is all about. Also, I think this movie would lose a little something without an audience.
(Now would someone please shoot a similar documentary about Louie’s Cafe in Baton Rouge? I just adored that place.)

2 thoughts on “Viva Les Amis (2005)”

  1. Man, I am so behind on Austin things – I didn’t even know Les Amis was closed! I didn’t go there all that often, really, but I still was fond of that place. Just walking by it was interesting.

  2. i moved to austin in the fall of 91 as an undergrad at UT, and i remember les amis as a nice quiet place to enjoy an iced spearmint tea and some beans rice and cheese. i loved the place and was very sad when it closed. i knew that it was in the movie slacker that had been released my senior year in high school and that it was beloved and that it was the poster child for the destruction of austin, but i didn’t know that it had been open for nearly 30 years and had no idea it had ever been wild. i live in l.a. now and was talking to an old friend that also lives here about the cafe this evening so i googled it when i got home and was excited that i might be able to buy a documentary on les amis. i’m disappointed to find that the last 8 years or so of its history are left out of the story. i remember being on the receiving end of the animosity felt by longtime austin residents when i moved there so i’m torn. on the one hand i’m sad that liberty lunch and the gm steakhouse(s) and les amis and hole in the wall and even sombrero rosa and a hundred other places are gone, but i also definitely remember being 19 and indignant at catching blame for ruining austin and wanting to tell every contemptuous aging hippie i saw to lay down like the dead should. it was great, it’s gone, not coming back. buy the DVD, stage a wake with the friends that you can still gather that are in the know, and let it go.

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