There And Back Again: Twitch Survives The 14th Butt-Numb-A-Thon

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

For my second year in a row, I made my way down to Austin, Texas, home of the infamous celebration of Movie Geekery known as Butt-Numb-a-Thon. This was the fourteenth iteration of this mad festival, what amounts to an annual birthday celebration for the iconoclast Harry Knowles, the so-called "headgeek" from Ain't It Cool News.

In years past, BNAT has been home to a wide variety of premieres, obscure cult films, and rare projections of 35mm vintage presentations, all taking place within the palace of cinema known as Alamo Drafthouse. For over 24 consecutive hours, a select group gather to revel in the insanity of the event, embracing film after film in succession with intervals spent watching smokers get their nicotine fixes, trying in the brief respites to hold on to some semblance of sanity.

While much of the press about the event focuses on the premieres, the true spirit is found with the screening of these oft-obscure or forgotten gems. A huge part of the charm of the event has to do with seeing things you haven't seen before, or perhaps haven't seen projected, and frankly my chances of seeing the likes of the Busby Berkely Technicolor film, or the notorious secret film that's being called "Brain Damage", are exactly the types of experiences unique to this presentation.

It does seem a bit nuts to fly halfway across a continent to see a bunch of movies with a group of people, many of whom you've never met, but I can attest that it truly is one of the more magical things to be done for any lover of cinema. There's such goodwill emanating from that room, an audience laughing at all the right places, respectful at others, and never disruptive to the experience.

This year started a day early - on the 10th anniversary of when it was first discovered at a BNAT (thanks to a tape slipped to Harry by Eli Roth), I finally had a chance to see the Raiders of the Lost Ark Adaptation. If you haven't heard the story, a group of teens in the 80s took it upon themselves to recreate their favourite film, spending some six years crafting this scene-for-scene loving tribute. In part to celebrate the release of a book that details the production, it was exactly the right event to gear off the weekend of Butt-numbing. The venue was the same (theatre one at the South Lamar Drafthouse), Harry was on stage, and most of the crowd were those in town for the events taking place the next day.

For newcomers to the main event, there are loads of "inside jokes" and references to past events that on first blush would seem offputting, but they end up being anything but - first timers are welcomed as warmly as those that have been there every year, and one quickly finds people from all over the world eager to interact with similar cinema lunatics. Given the event's exclusivity (there's a limit of just under 200 people) you'd think that there would be a kind of arrogance permeating the event, but again the opposite is the case - it's an exclusive group to be a member of, to be sure, but not for one moment does any portion of the proceedings come across as cloistered or intimidating.


This esprit of the event cannot be overemphasised, and it's why filmmakers go out of their way to play a role in this evening. When the likes of Brad Pitt, Michael Bay, The Rock, and Simon Pegg make special introductory videos giving birthday wishes, it's clear the reach of the festival and the goodwill that Knowles engenders.

Of course, the big in-person celebrity moments are legendary, and this year was no different. After last year, where a certain director more or less promised his film would make an appearance at BNAT14, Peter Jackson made good on his word, showing up by private plane with Fran Walsh (his wife/co-writer) and Phillipa Boyens (co-writer) in order to introduce the first Hobbit film to the Austin audience. Sir Peter returned at the end for a lively and informative Q&A, addressing questions about whether there's plans to do a Fellowship redux with Freeman in the Bilbo sequence (as of yet there's absolutely no plans to revisit the Blu-ray sets), and discussing that the extended edition of this first film runs around 20-25 minutes longer.

Elijah Wood has long attended as a fan, and it was quite a buzz to be sitting just a few seats away from him watching scenes from Middle Earth on screen. As one of the few who had seen the film beforehand, before the event began we had a lively discussion as two fans of cinema, chatting about the merits (and distractions) of HFR, a discussion that went on with many other participants throughout the day. It's a testament to the event that the likes of Wood, Rian Johnson, and many other writers, artists and filmmakers join the audience every year, actually finding some normalcy within the community of fellow cinephiles during this very abnormal of marathons. 

I did get a chance to speak directly with Sir Peter after the screening, where I promptly congratulated him on taking on the role as the director of STAR WARS: EPISODE VII. As expected, he took the joke well, complete with hearty laugh.

For a later premiere, fest stalwart (and ex-Austinian) Guillermo Del Toro came on stage to present Mama along with Andres and Barbara Muschietti, and proceeded to regale the crowd with his usual erudite banter. He also showed a brief tease of Pacific Rim, and the scorching cacophony soundtrack of that film rocked the venue. The teaser for PacRim leaves me slightly wary, but I'm firmly in camp GDT, so remain hopeful that this grand experiment in mega-budget filmmaking will be a gamble that pays off handsomely.

By morning, when the grey sky began to be lit again, we found Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, there to show off scenes from The Heat, the new buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa Mccarthy. I saw him sitting on a bench in the lobby, patiently awaiting his turn as the event had of course been running slightly overtime. Patiently waiting out Cagney's turn in White Heat, there wasn't a hint of annoyance from the man, clearly just pleased to be there to show this crowd his work.

On paper this project sounds horrendous, but the clips shown by Feig were well chosen, and if the rest lives up to this tease this could very well be an enormous hit. For the sake of transparency, I should let it be known he also bought donuts for the entire audience from one of the many local establishments that make stunning iterations of these delicacies. I'd like to think I wasn't swayed by this generosity, but I make no promises.

So, with thanks to those that actually copied down the running order, here's a few of the highlights of what transpired during BNAT14 - for a full list of all trailers, teases, and other films that played that evening, there's a terrific Wiki Page that I can only assume was maintained by someone who was far more rested than I was during the event.


BNAT-teen_wolf_poster.jpgTeen Wolf

As per my article last year, this is one of those inside jokes with Harry, one that's grown to legendary status. This year we finally got to see at least a significant portion of the film, until (more than a bit suspiciously) the film got eaten by the projector right as "TW" was about to take his final shot. While I haven't seen the film in its entirety since I saw it during its initial theatrical run, I can only hope that the ending lives up to expectations.


bnat-star_trek-poster.jpgStar Trek: Into Darkness (trailer)

I'm glad I waited to see it on the big screen, this tease for the latest by J.J. boomed through the auditorium with appropriate aplomb. While there was talk of extended scenes that were going to be shown tied to the trailer, these never materialized.

I remain positive about the direction that Abrams is taking the franchise, quite amused in the way that he's refashioning these stories into very much a Star Wars aesthetic. I've got no problem with this, and if I really feel nostalgic, I can always throw in my Blu-ray of The Final Frontier to see what slavish nostalgia for the original crew can bring to the fore.

BNAT-hobbit_poster.jpgThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I've already said much about the film, but second time through I was pleased to see my initial observations held up, both in terms of the technical presentation and the film itself. The Drafthouse has excellent facilities, but the screen was still significantly smaller than the one I had seen during the initial press screening. As such, certain elements were brought to the fore, while other visual elements that stood out were more subdued.

If I'm going to be more critical about HFR, the only shots I felt were most distracting were the earlier shots where PJ and Lesnie employ "shaky cam" effects. These sweep pans, without the mush of 24p blur, seemed far more heavy-handed when scrubbed from their slurry of streaks. I'm rarely a fan of this type of handheld chaos at the best of times, so if HFR shooting makes them redundant, I'm all for it.

The audience seemed mixed about HFR, and even Jackson admitted during his intro that "some would hate it" seeing the film in this fashion. Still, you could not have asked for a more receptive and knowledgeable audience, applause erupting throughout the screening. It was a terrific screening, and as vibrant and entertaining as any premiere has any right to be.

BNAT-gi_joe_poster.jpgG.I. Joe: Retaliation

While we had the world premiere of the trailer last year, this long-finished film is still awaiting public release. In its stead, we were treated to a scene involving one black-festooned Ninja Dude fighting an all-in-white Ninja Dude (this is the level I choose to apprehend this film).

While not giving a damn about story or character of the project, I admit wholeheartedly to be excited to see a bunch of crazy Ninja guys kicking the crap out of one another while danging from ropes on the side of a mountain. It's cotton candy cinema, fluffy, overly sweet and clearly bad for you, but it still very much looks to provide at least instant gratification when finally released.

BNAT-broadway_melody_poster.jpgBroadway Melody of 1940

Harry's got a soft spot for classic musicals, and while I have seen a fair number, I've actually skipped most of Astaire's body of work, save for clips in numerous documentaries.

The plot of the film is as vapid as most of these films (despite the full writer list, including those uncredited, running some dozen or so people!), but there's real charm in the dancing sequences with George Murphy, Eleanor Powell, and of course Astaire himself.

With loads of Cole Porter tunes, some iconic moments (including many "borrowed" by Michael Jackson, including that remarkable lean), it proved to be quite a bit of fun. The crowd was enthusiastic throughout, applauding after each number.

As part of the tease to the film, they played a clip from the AFI Tribute to Astaire from Powell, a really nice touch to set the stage for the work.

BNAT-gangs_all_here-poster.jpgThe Gang's All Here

Back-to-back classic musicals, this one a Busby Berkeley Technicolor extravaganza!

Ribald, ridiculous, this love triangle fiasco is almost as flighty as the previous film, and of course includes a number of Berkeley's usual, kaleidoscopic flourishes. The euphamisms and innuendos run rampant, including an extraordinary sequence involving ripe, phallic bananas splayed by lines of dancers. This is the stuff of Lebowskian dreams, and to have Carmen Miranda on screen chortling away during these sequences makes the whole thing even more surreal.

The best part for me, besides the polka dot sequence, has to be the inclusion of the Benny Goodman. Sure, he's stiff, and his singing not up to par with the flourishes of his swingin' Clarinet, but to have a Chromakey disembodied head of this giant of Jazz floating around during the finale is an image I won't quickly forget.

BNAT-mama-poster.jpgMama

As Gothic and somber as you'd expect from the likes of a Del Toro-stamped production, this high concept ghost story does a nice job in setting mood, with fine practical visuals and moments that lean towards dread more than outright shock and horror.

The feral performances by the young girls is certainly refreshing in its refusal to hold back, and Jessica Chastain accords herself well as a reluctant mother figure.


bnat-world_war_z-poster.jpgWorld War Z (clip)

Brad Pitt introduced a brief clip from the film, cheekily followed by a Star Wars-like crawl reminding the audience that colour timing, VFX, and so on is far from final, and not to judge it too harshly.

The cip is drawn from what appears to be a very early sequence, where Pitt and his family are witnessing the beginning of whatever "Rabies-like outbreak" is causing the Zombie-like infection of a populace. The mayhem is impressive, and this certainly ramps up this subgenre by increasing the tempo, both in terms of infection rate and the speed with which the aggressors move.

Consider me cautiously optimistic, the tease certainly made me more interested in the film than I was previous to seeing it.

bnat-libeled_lady-poster.jpgLibeled Lady

A mid-30s, big cast love quadrangle film, this was another MGM classic that I'd never seen. Following the exploits of two newspaper men trying to avoid the implications of a libel lawsuit ($5 million in 1936 is a hell of a lawsuit!), this Spencer Tracy/Jean Harlow/William Powell/Myrna Loy vehicle is a lot of fun, if not exactly high art.

It's a testament to the early days of cinema that this is the type of film that saw great acclaim, and was nominated for Best Picture along with the likes of Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and Wyler's Dodsworth, losing out to another Powell/Loy film of that year, Robert Z. Leonard's The Great Ziegfeld.

bnat-brain_damage.jpg"Brain Damage"

After a sneaky video intro by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, promising us a look at their latest film, we were immediately immersed into easily one of the worst films I've ever seen, a tragically unaware vanity production that cannot be named for various reasons.

This is the kind of "so very bad it's good" screenings, the fine balance between something that's laughably insane without being dreary or pretentious. As a film, it engenders lots of imitation at the picnic tables after the screening. While it's of course laughably terrible, you do have to admire the chutzpah of the director/editor/producer/music supervisor who assembled this so-called "movie", clearly in order to close-mouth kiss the decades-younger actresses, several of whom who were willing to expose side boob!

Given sleep deprivation and a giggly audience, this atrocious film was nonetheless one of the absolute highlights of the event.

bnat-evil_dead-poster.jpgEvil Dead (clip)

This first sneak at the re-scarified Evil Dead was both gory and disturbing, immediately letting the audience know this is no comically ridiculous Ash-fest like Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness.

Brutal, staccato action, along with some particularly gruesome prosthetic effects at least gives hope that Fede Alvarez's take is more than just a cash grab for horror fans, and that there's something actually new and refreshing about this take.


bnat-nightmare_alley-poster.jpgNightmare Alley

This 1946 carnival-themed grifter film was a deliciously pulpy morality tale. The fact that it's a film that involves the horrific travails of being a "Geek" (in the original sense of the term, naturally) makes this more than a bit fitting for this particular event.

Tyrone Power is appropriately dashing and manic, while Coleen Gray's wide-eyed innocence was actually a bit irritating to this cynical film goer.

The ending was pretty dark for its time, and while it sort of plays as a well telegraphed Twilight Zone finale, it still proved to be loads of fun.

bnat-white_heat.jpgWhite Heat

Yet another classic I hadn't seen, and I was desperate to stay awake for the entirety of this film. Alas, talk of the nature of Oscillators and the intricacies of police procedure knocked me out for at least part of the running time. The print was in excellent shape, and this is yet another of those Warner Gangster movies that I've only seen the ending of (spoilers abounding of finales in the numerous Gangster-on-Film docs that pervade many DVD/Blu sets).

Cagney still doesn't affect me on screen the way others of his ilk do, and I just couldn't get into his antics, despite the fact that this was clearly a mature and self-aware performance on his part. Sure, it's an incredibly important film for the canon, but it just didn't move me in a way I expected it to. It may be fair to say a second viewing, free from exhaustion, may be in order.

bnat-the_heat.jpgThe Heat (tease)

Pandering donuts in hand, Feig's follow up to Bridesmaids sure looks to be a lot of fun. The redband trailer we saw premiere had all the hallmarks of this type of film (echoes of Miss Congeniality notwithstanding), but an extended sequence involving McCarthy arresting a man shows far more the sarcastic, sardonic tone of the film that might play very well indeed.



bnat-rollerball-poster.jpgRollerball

Projected from a 35mm print that looked far better than it had any right to be, this Norman Jewison post-apocalyptic sporting romp still comes across as more silly than menacing. That said, there's a funky style to the thing, indicative of Jewison's 70s output, with mild flourishes echoing the (deliriously amazing) Jesus Christ Superstar in ways that were probably inadvertent.

James Caan is all hairy chest and bravado, while John Houseman comes across as appropriately stentorian.  

bnat-pain_and_gain-poster.JPGPain & Gain (trailer)

I'm not quite sure how it has happened, but I've developed a growing fondness for Michael Bay. After a courteous video greeting to the audience and birthday salutations for Harry, we saw the premiere of this Wahlberg/Dwayne Johnson "true story" film.

A madcap, steroidal kidnapping caper, with Tony Shaloub at the center of the action, this really does look like it could be a hell of a lot of fun. Marky Mark and The Rock look appropriately engorged, while flashes of Ken Jeong, Ed Harris and Rob Corddry point to this potentially being an absolute blast.

bnat-bullet_to_the_head.JPGBullet to the Head

After a slew of vintage Walter Hill trailers, including Southern Comfort and The Warriors (as well as the non-Hill, drafthouse staple Stunt Rock teaser), we were treated to this graphic, bombastic buddy film.

Stallone plays Jimmy Bobo, a hitman, who gets caught up with Sung Kang's Detective character, as they try to uncover some stuff. Really, the plot was beside the point, especially after some 26 hours.

This is a great throwback piece to Walter Hill-ian films of yore, and the likes of Christian Slater, Jason Momoa and a slightly more puffy Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje all seem to be having a good time.

The body counts are high, and the film has clearly gone for a hard-R in a way that will make fans of this type of action shlock happy. At a breezy 90 minutes, it was a fine desert for the entire event, with plenty of explosions and banter to keep things moving right to the end.

And that's it...until next year!

Around the Internet:
  • Sean Smithson

    Not super impressed with the line-up of programming. I'm a huge noir fan and count Nightmare Alley as one of my favorite films ever, but the list of clips etc reads like an off day at ComicCon San Diego.

  • More than half the fun is seeing it with that crowd, as I tried to make clear, but part of the charm is doing this as a continuous run, finding strange connections ("Hey, Alfred Newman again!" as one flows into the next.

    I guess it's not your thing, but the clips are just bonus, the real treat are the features, and the audience to experience them with.

  • mightyjoeyoung

    "In its stead, we were treated to a scene involving one black-festooned Ninja Dude fighting an all-in-white Ninja Dude (this is the level I choose to apprehend this film). "

    WHAT....???

    BLASPHEMY I TELL YOU......kidding.....yeah, it won´t solve cancer but might be fun.
    Stephen Sommers is out of picture, and that could only be a benefit for the franchise.

    If not, I guess they have to talk to Joe Johnston, Michael Bay etc.

    "A madcap, steroidal kidnapping caper, with Tony Shaloub at the center of the action, this really does look like it could be a hell of a lot of fun."

    Tony Shalhoub is underrated to me, I like him, so this could be fun.

    Bay can be fun but how this film will fit in with the rest of his stuff......I´m very curious about that.

    "The body counts are high, and the film has clearly gone for a hard-R in a way that will make fans of this type of action shlock happy."
    Good ole Hill......well, I´m going to try to support him, in hopes that Hollywood will greenlit something less generic by Hill.
    Thanks Mr Gorber, it seems that you had fun.

  • yeah, I'm only mildly comatose days later...

    Joe Johnston will be doing STAR WARS, remember? :)

  • mightyjoeyoung

    Really...?
    I missed that, oh well......they put the project in the right hands, I just hope Joe Johnston gets a good script too.

  • I was teasing, no one has any idea who the hell is taking the reins.

    Well, not no one, but you get the idea.

  • mightyjoeyoung

    Yeah, but him and Joseph Kosinski and.....well.....you could put anyones name on it, I think a lot people in la la land would kill their mothers for that opportunity, shall be interesting to see who gets the job by Rampant Rodent Productions (yeah, I mean Disney).

  • Freddy

    Please, tell us more about the "Brain Damage" film! What's the title, the plot, etc.

  • I have been sworn to secrecy, alas, but I swear to you, this isn't a film anyone should actively want to see, except as part of some stupefying marathon of films. It's drivel, not some hidden gem waiting to be loved. And yet, because of that, it was kind of awesome with that crowd, at that venue, laughing moment to moment at the sheer ridiculousness of the thing even existing.

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