I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of birds bickering outside my bedroom window. It gave me pause.
Watching seemingly benign winged creatures attacking humans for nearly two hours in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 thriller chiller "The Birds" — along with nearly 2,000 other people Friday night at the Plaza Theatre — will do that to you.
That's the emotional punch of the El Paso Community Foundation's annual Plaza Classic Film Festival.
Turns out those backyard birds were OK. Probably arguing about who was going to get the worm that morning.
This year's Plaza Classic? More than OK. A lot more than OK.
Months ago, when I asked organizers Eric Pearson, Community Foundation president, and Charles Horak, PCFF artistic director, if they were going to do anything special for its fifth anniversary, they said no, five years wasn't that long in the scheme of things.
I'm not saying they lied or anything like that, but they certainly ratcheted things up a few notches.
This year's festival was like a highlight reel of memorable moments. Once the PCFF's Edith Head and movie jewelry exhibits at the El Paso Museum of Art wind down Sept. 9, the 2012 Plaza Classic is likely to top 40,000 attendance, its highest turnout yet.
It's not hard to see why. Nearly every day had a big-draw movie on the bill.
And they got Oscar-winner Al Pacino to appear at this year's festival, snagging the biggest name in the festival's young history and providing one of the 11-day festival's most memorable, and unscripted, moments.
I'm not talking about the 135 minutes he spent on the Plaza Theatre stage in "Al Pacino: One Night Only" on Aug. 4, turning his life and prolific film career into performance art, though that was plenty memorable.
I'm talking about an impromptu autograph and photo session he did with some of the approximately 200 fans who'd gathered in and around the Mills Plaza Parking Garage after Pacino exited a $1,000-a-ticket reception. The fans applauded as he drove off in a black SUV. Pacino's six-hour stop in the Sun City unofficially netted about $120,000 for the foundation's new Plaza Theatre Endowment Fund.
There were plenty of other special moments, like Eva Marie Saint, looking and acting 10 years younger than her 88 years, teasing and flirting with a blushing Horak, before Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" on opening night Aug. 2. She was almost as entertaining as the movie.
A potential disappointment turned into pure fun Aug. 4 after PCFF officials canceled a showing of an HD restoration of "Manos: The Hands of Fate," the notoriously bad 1966 movie made by a group of El Paso novices. They'd been threatened with legal action by people associated with another restoration, and a sequel, odd considering the movie's in the public domain.
That forced Californian Ben Solovey, who has been restoring it, and cast member Jackey Neyman-Jones to scramble together a free showing that night at the Camino Real. About 200 people attended, their laughter no doubt egged on by the film's badness and the underground nature of the last-minute move, the buzz all the more surreal by the thumping music downstairs.
There were several other moments that stood out, like watching "E.T." on Aug. 8 with a crowd of 1,500 people, many of them little kids who laughed, giggled, cried and paid attention, which probably wouldn't happen in a multiplex.
There was the spellbound crowd of nearly 1,900 that watched Gregory Peck's noble Atticus Finch fight for what's right and decent in a Depression-era South frought with bigotry and ignorance in "To Kill a Mockingbird" on Aug. 9. The experience was enhanced by what Mary Badham, who played young tomboy Scout, had to say about making the film and the segregated South in which she grew up.
My favorite experience of all was sitting in that sold-out crowd for "The Birds," laughing as the audience went "whooooo" when Tippi Hedren, who spoke about her experiences that night, kissed Rod Taylor the first time, or when audience members muttered things like "don't open the door" or "don't go upstairs" as the apocalyptic aviary attacks grew more intense.
It's the kind of communal experience you just don't get in a multiplex theater, where illuminated cellphones, crying babies and couch potato commentators ruin it. The Plaza Classic comes around once a year (and will return Aug. 1-11, 2013), which is why I try to enjoy those communal experiences.
This year's PCFF ended on a high note with a finale showing of "The Sting," preceded by Pearson's claim that "this is our strongest year" and Horak's emotional send-off. "What a wonderful set of memories," he said, prompting the crowd of about 700 to give him a standing ovation.
There's next year's PCFF 6.0 to look forward to (it'll be Aug. 1-11, 2013), not to mention free Christmas movies in December and a Halloween showing of the silent version of "The Phantom of the Opera," with music by PCFF vets the Alloy Orchestra, on Oct. 28 at the Plaza.
For a relatively young event, the Plaza Classic has reeled off a lot of lasting memories. I think back to that first year in 2008 when organizers' and audiences' glowed, or 2010, when an emotional Debbie Reynolds confessed to me that returning to the city where she was born after more than 50 years away made her miss her family.
Pearson and Horak really outdid themselves this year.
Now if they can just do something about those bickering birds in my backyard.