“I feel like I’m closing this part of the South Congress that shouldn’t be lost,” says Liz Lambert wistfully in “Through the Plexiglas: The Last Days of San Jose,” without knowing exactly how true it is. I’d find that feeling reigned decades after she first uttered it in 1998, after she brought a wrecking ball to the San Jose Hotel in Austin, where the $ 30 a night price tag attracted the kind of customers who can’t afford longer-term housing solutions could. No longer recognizable as one of the hippest hotels in town today, with a courtyard large enough to welcome Alabama Shakes to play during SXSW, and regularly attracting guests who earn more than that in a year $ 550,000 Lambert originally paid for the place in 1997, but “The Last Days of San Jose” captures the days when the rundown rooms were open to musicians who were late with payments, students of the nearby university that were getting into tough times, and for those who were snakebite in one way or another, from drugs to domestic violence.
It speaks to the kind of attraction Austin has that Lambert is the underdog in every way than the people she housed, despite having a bigger bank account after working as a lawyer and like so many others after a change of scene searched, followed her gut to ask if the motel is for sale across the street from Austin’s popular concert hall, The Continental Club. The foresight of documenting their adventure wet their feet in the hospitality industry proves to be an extraordinary instinct in preserving the memory of what the Southern Congress was before the renovation of the San Jose Hotel gave the city its distinctive reputation for the benefit of them chasing authenticity with their checkbooks.
Using footage largely from the first three years of Lambert’s tenure, the film shows that despite the graffiti, walls and syringes that need to be removed from behind bathroom mirrors, getting to know the folks at the hotel was a great reward Would check in with a camera at the front desk that offers the most authentic view of Austin in the 1990s on this side of “Slacker”. While it was not uncommon for Lambert to see cops on the property without first knowing why they were there, the ghost also yielded a place where a magical bagpipe serenade could take place without warning, fearing a fire might break out could easily turn out to be a grill with a pretty nice looking chicken on the grill. The charm extends to Lambert’s desire to get to know some of her guests better and watch some find their stand and others fight mightily, but all live their lives in their own way.
Lambert sneaks into the frame on occasion, but exists mostly as the voice behind the camera and as the director of the film (with Tina Gazzerro Clapp) she puts herself in the same troubled position that she finds herself in as a businessman and under no obligation to herself feel responsibility to their guests beyond what was paid for, but ambivalent about whether that should be the case, especially when seeing the cost of improving their business that is not on a table. It is noteworthy that Lambert had shown a version of “The Last Days of San Jose” back in 2005. By this point the effects of gentrification had already been seen in Austin, but perhaps less prevalent than other parts of the country it is now (hence the update) and since the hotelier expresses an uncertain propensity for regret, the film uses the notable one Perspective of the past time to show what is left when the physical architecture that gives shape to the communities disappears and Lambert Sühne brings in an admirable way to salvage what it can remember.
“Through the Plexiglas: The Last Days of San Jose” will be shown on March 16 at 2pm CST on SXSW.