So here it is: my review of Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9, the annual 24-hour long film festival hosted by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News, which was held at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz in Austin, Texas this past weekend on December 8th through 9th. It might be worth noting that according to the yearbook that we all received, I was the attendee who was from the most obscure town anywhere: a miniscule spot-on-the-mind somewhere in North Carolina, as opposed to being from Austin or Los Angeles or Atlanta.
This was also my first Butt-Numb-A-Thon.
First film festival ever for that matter.
Heck, this was my first time in Texas, period.
I left my friend Deborah's house around 10 a.m. and was in Austin about 30 minutes later. I parked at the Hilton a few blocks away and headed to the Ritz. Quite a colorful crowd milling around outside, including a number of folks that I'd met at Harry's get-together at the chili honky-tonk the night before (hey Michael, I didn't see ya inside but I hope ya got in dude!). There was a short line for people who got invites, and when I got to the table I gave them my name and was presented with a numbered wristband and an envelope. Inside were three tickets: one for the t-shirt and poster, one for the goody bag and one that the girl told me was for "the big giveaway" sometime during the show. The wristband's number was your assigned seat.
I picked up my t-shirt and tube with posters, then got the goody bag. That included nifty loot like the Battlestar Galactica: Razor DVD, some independent film DVDs and the Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 Yearbook, with names and pictures of everyone who was invited to attend. Also got a set of Star Wars mini-busts from Gentle Giant: all six of the bounty hunters from The Empire Strikes Back, plus Darth Vader. Very nice!
Before I ascended up to the theater an Alamo staff member asked me to open my backpack, to see if there was any contraband like recording devices etc. Nope, nothing there: I came in completely bereft of gadgetry, per instructions.
Okay, "Butt-Numb-A-Thon" was aptly named, 'cuz while most people got those nice plushy seats to sit back in and enjoy the show, a few folks including myself got hard folding chairs! But I didn't mind: a little discomfort helps to keep you awake and alert. Get too comfortable and your neurobiology lulls you into a state of contentment that's hard to shake out of. And I'd flown all the way to Texas for this and didn't want to waste a moment (or money).
Things kicked off right at 11:30 a.m. with an intro by Harry, wearing a Santa hat. A video camera piped Harry's head onto the screen. He gave a big shout-out to people who came from Atlanta and Minnesota. And then Harry announced that EVERYONE was getting a free Toshiba HD-DVD player! I looked at the guy next to me and asked "Is he serious? He's kidding right?" Nope, Harry was serious all right. That "mystery ticket" was what we'd use to redeem for our players at the end of the show. Harry wasn't foolin' around when he told people coming in by plane to have plenty of space in their check-in luggage. On my way to the airport the next day I had to have the player and my posters shipped home 'cuz I didn't expect such generous loot. I'm looking forward to messing around with it once it arrives. Up 'til now I haven't committed to buying into anything from the HD-DVD/Blu-ray format war until the dust settles. And regular DVD still looks pretty darned good on our setup (37-inch LCD HDTV with a great upscaling player) so it might still be awhile before I start investing heavily in titles for it, but in the meantime at least I'll get to watch Transformers in high def. In addition to 300 and The Bourne Identity, which came free with the player.
And so Butt-Numb-A-Thon was up and running, warming things up with Hobo With A Shotgun...
I'd never seen this before but I loved it! That was followed by the trailers for Popcorn (which I vaguely remember from my high school days), Pinocchio's Birthday Party (has that early-70s "coming down off the drugs" look), Happy Birthday To Me, The Party Animal, and Stunt Rock, which one of the guys next to me said is something of a Butt-Numb-A-Thon tradition...
As that one was winding down, Drafthouse owner Tim League came out decked out like the wizard in the Stunt Rock trailer and banged his staff on the stage, sending confetti flying everywhere.
Then there was a product demo of the HD-DVD player that we were getting. We saw a bit of Miami Vice, including a neat feature that shows you what kind of planes are good for drug running and what routes you want to follow to get your "Guatemalan Gold" from Central America to Florida. We were also shown some of the German version of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which really opened my eyes as to how beautiful high-def video can look on a big screen. The last time I saw Terminator 2 this good was the summer of '91.
And then things got cranked-up full-bore and the real movies started...
- THE GREAT McGINTY (1940)
This is why I immediately came to love the whole Butt-Numb-A-Thon experience: because it was 24 hours of discovering, for the most part, movies that I had either never heard of or otherwise might have ever not had the pleasure of enjoying.
Preston Sturges sold this screenplay for $10 and wound up winning the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay (he also directed it). The prologue at the beginning of the movie informs us that "This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic." Ever since watching The Great McGinty I've wondered if that's a double entendre and that the "banana republic" in question isn't the south-of-the-border location where McGinty is presently living in but America... 'cuz strip away the Depression-era setting and The Great McGinty is a pretty damning indictment against modern-day American politics. Brian Donlevy plays Dan McGinty: a down-and-out bum in a major city of an unnamed state who goes from homeless tramp to political enforcer, and then all the way to mayor and governor. But to be a viable candidate, McGinty's handlers have to spin him as being a family man. So he gets into a "marriage of convenience" with his secretary (who comes complete with kids from a previous relationship) and this sets up the "one crazy minute" that causes him to lose it all by the end of the movie.
I was reminded quite a bit about The Last Hurrah: another great film about politics and the corruption that comes with it. The best line of The Great McGinty is by the political boss played by Akim Tamiroff, who at one point tells McGinty that "In this town I'm all the parties!" Which is probably far more true these days than Preston Sturges ever imagined when he made this movie. A solid opening for a (largely) great slate of films.
After The Great McGinty we saw more trailers: The 'Burbs, Bachelor Party (both with Tom Hanks) and then for no apparent reason (or was there?) the trailer for Amin: The Rise and Fall, which is a movie about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The highlight of that trailer was Amin's cutting a piece of meat out of one of his victims and devouring it...
Pretty sick stuff and at the time it didn't make much sense, but I realize now that Harry was trying to inure us to the pain of what was to come later in the program...
- CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR (2007)
1. Never accept wine bottles from CIA agents.Mike Nichols's movie (with screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) about Charlie Wilson, a member of the U.S. House from Texas who convinced his fellow members of Congress to supply arms and funding to the Mujahideen in the years following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Tom Hanks plays Wilson. Julia Roberts is Texas socialite and activist Joanne Herring. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is in a plum role as rogue CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. Ned Beatty and Amy Adams also figure into the main cast.
2. Baptist girls are HOT! (but those of us who married Baptist girls know this already.)
3. Foreign policy should not be made by those with no grasp of history and too much grasp of Armageddon.
I kept thinking that Charlie Wilson in this movie was much like Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List in that they are both very materialistic and corrupt men, who come to care for others and go to great lengths to protect and save them. In Wilson's case, this means getting weaponry to the Afghan freedom fighter so they can take down Russian helicopters and tanks. Unfortunately, at least as depicted in Charlie Wilson's War, Wilson's motives in and of themselves might be a pure thing. But the means to fulfilling those motives are quickly tainted by people like Joanne Herring and other "Christian activists" who see American involvement in the Mid-East as fulfilling the will of God. Complicating matters is the fact that although Wilson wants to help the Afghans, it can't look too obvious that American munitions are entering the country... because that might honk-off the Soviets more than anyone really wants to.
I have no idea if the real-life Joanne Herring was ever like how she's depicted by Julia Roberts in this movie. If Joanne Herring really was like this, I hope and pray that she's wised-up by now. I'm a Christian, and this kind of playing games with the lives of people in the name of God disgusts me to no end. It's faith turned to blind ideology for sake of worldly power. "God" is no longer something that compels these people to change themselves but instead becomes a tool – or a weapon – that these people are using to change the world... and it always destroys more than it ever creates anything good.
And I say this as sincere a follower of Christ as I can possibly strive to be: that too many Christians in this world - and especially America - don't do a damned thing with the brains that God gave them. But I'll talk more about that later: Farewell Uncle Tom was still 15 hours away.
In the end, the American aid to the Afghans turns the tide against the Soviets and the Russians are forced to retreat. The "good Christians" like Herring and so-called "right wing" politicians are satisfied that America has won, no doubt because God was on their side. And then they basically tell the Afghans to pick up their own mess. Charlie Wilson's War doesn't elucidate on what happens after that, and it doesn't really need to either: the United States may have won the proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the short term. But the American government's failure to follow-up on its involvement would sow the seeds for discontent that in a few years time would make way for the Taliban to come to power in Afghanistan, and give rise to prominence for a former supporter of the Mujahideen by the name of Osama bin Laden.
I think that Charlie Wilson's War is a more effective film than the recent spate of movies about the Iraq situation. And I think that people will tune into it for two reasons. One is that Iraq is a war that's still going on right now and folks go to movies to escape having to think about news like that for a few hours, not to pay money to be confronted by it. And second, unlike those movies, Charlie Wilson's War doesn't hit you square in the face with what the filmmakers want you to go away from this movie believing about their agenda. They let you "suss things out" for yourself and let you draw your own conclusions.
All things considered, Charlie Wilson's War was a strong entry for the first new movie on the program, with great performances by Hanks, Roberts and especially Hoffman. There are also some pretty effective sequences in which we see the Afghans using their new toys against the Soviet military.
After Charlie Wilson's War it was 3:50 p.m and Harry announced that next on the agenda was Pickup on South Street. We got a ten-minute break and then more trailers: A Bomb For A Dictator, a 60s/70s-era spot from the Will Rogers Institute promoting immunization, and Mr. No Legs.
- PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)
A noir-ish tale of honor among thieves, with a heaping dash of McCarthy-era anti-Communist paranoia thrown into the mix. That it stars the indomitable Richard Widmark (hey Harry how about The Long Ships for next year's program?) in a rather uncharacteristic role for him makes it all the more fun. Widmark plays three-time loser pickpocket Skip McCoy, who steals from the way wrong purse on a subway. Mainly: McCoy quick-handed heists a microfilm from the purse of Candy (Jean Peters) who’s been hired to be a courier by a ring of Commie spies, which includes here ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). Soon everyone is coming after McCoy: the Commies, the police (especially a captain played by Murvyn Vye who wants nothing more than to get McCoy with a fourth conviction, sending him away for life), and Candy herself.
I liked everything about this film. Just a darned perfect movie rife with great dialogue, editing and action (maybe a bit harsh in a movie for its time... especially regarding violence toward women). But it's the characters that made this movie shine so much for me, especially Moe (beautifully played by Thelma Ritter), a stoolie for the police whose biggest dream is a nice cemetery plot instead of an ignominious burial at Potter's Field. Indeed, it's Moe who gives, in my mind anyway, the best speech of the entire film, and it sadly sums up a lot of what our world has turned into: "I have to go on making a living so I can die."
By this point I was beginning to discern a pattern. It seemed that Harry intentionally programmed movies that reflect on the corruption of human nature, and how in our own way each of us attempts to deal with it. In The Great McGinty we saw how the lust for power lures a man to greatness before destroying his life in the end. In Charlie Wilson's War it is a powerful man who is corrupt (and seems to revel in it at times) who tries to rise above it... but in the end it becomes an open question as to whether he was right at all to have tried to follow through on his good intentions. Ironically in Pickup on South Street we have Skip McCoy, a man who by all accounts should be driven by fatigue and despair to stay committed to corruption, yet he's the one who manages to escape (with a pretty girl in tow, to boot).
After Pickup on South Street it was time for a break. When we came back, we saw the new trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian...
...and then Ain't It Cool News's Drew McWeeny - AKA "Moriarty" - did an on-stage interview with Mark Johnson, one of the movie's producers. This was followed-up by a five-minute segment of footage that for the most part hadn't been seen by the public before. A lot of the effects were unfinished, but it was pretty cool to check out Reepicheep in action, as well as Warwick Davis as a dwarf. We also heard that Eddie Izzard would be voicing Reepicheep.
You may have heard by now that apparently Rambo was programmed but that Sylvester Stallone didn't send it along because a lot of the effects weren't finished. I can understand that, along with apparently why Cloverfield didn't make the event (even though it's safe to say that those were the two movies that were most anticipated for this Butt-Numb-A-Thon). But to help assuage our grief Stallone sent two clips from Rambo (along with a nice note telling us that if we didn't like it, that Rambo would come while we were sleeping and slit our throats). The first is as Rambo is taking the people up the river and Julie Benz's character is trying to wheedle some background story out of him. Rambo mentions being a Vietnam vet and how he might still have a father somewhere. The next clip takes place at night and has Rambo's boat assaulted by river pirates. Pretty violent, even for a Rambo movie. I've a good feeling about this though: just as Rocky Balboa brought the Rocky character back to his roots, I think that Rambo might swing that series away from the Eighties cartoonish caricature that John Rambo has become and back to the grim underpinnings of First Blood.
More trailers: The Secret of Magic Island (they're animals... that act like people!!)...
...Big Trouble in Little China...
...and Thunder Cops, which I remember mostly for a lot of gunplay, a lot of mysticism and a lot of tiny flying killer toy helicopters...
It was 6:05 p.m. at this point and time for...
- MONGOL (2007)
The breakout hit of the show. This Russian-produced film by Sergei Bodrov chronicles the early years and career of Temujin (spelled "Temudgin" in the subtitles and played as an adult by Tadanobu Asano), a youth from the steppes of Mongolia who history would come to know and fear as Ghengis Khan.
Thematically, Mongol reminded me quite a lot of Conan the Barbarian: the whole thing about "that which does not kill you can only make you stronger", as we see Temujin betrayed by allies and repeatedly imprisoned (and escaping just as often). I thought that Mongol was fairly accurate to the existing accounts of Temujin, with a few details loosely interpreted and a number of things omitted entirely, like how Temujin killed his half-brother at the age of 13. According to longtime legend, Temujin was also born while clutching a blood clot in his fist: a Mongolian omen that meant the child would be a great leader. We don't see that in this movie. Maybe we will in a flashback later on because Mongol is the first of a planned trilogy about the great Khan's life. Plenty of battle and blood-spilling here (and most will probably wonder how much influence 300 had on this production) but it never overwhelms the character-driven storytelling of Mongol. Who would have thought that the warrior king who eventually subdued half the world and brought panic to Russia was also a loving husband and family man?
I will gladly see Mongol again in a theater when it comes out domestically in June 2008. Mongol is a two-hour movie, but is such a sweeping epic that it feels much longer and I didn't check my watch until the credits rolled, so enthralled was I by the film.
It was during Mongol that I had my first real meal at an Alamo Drafthouse: the Porky's Pepperoni Pizza. And now I know why this place is so popular, because the food is terrific! It’s cooked to order too. And for about 8 bucks it was a pretty good amount of pizza. I also spent $11 for a bottomless soft drink that sustained me throughout Butt-Numb-A-Thon: not a bad deal at all. If I'm ever back in Austin, especially with family or friends, I will definitely give Tim League and his crew some patronage again.
There was another break and at around 8:20 p.m Drew McWeeny came out on stage with Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins from Pixar Animation to talk about the studio's upcoming film WALL-E. I must sadly admit that I haven't seen a Pixar movie during an initial theatrical run nearly often enough. I will be there on opening day for WALL-E. This may be the best CGI work that Pixar has ever done: just gosh-darned beautiful eye candy that looks extremely real. But more than that, based on the four clips that we were shown, I think that WALL-E is going to be classic silent storytelling (for the most part) of a kind that we haven't seen since the days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Pixar's Morris also told us that at any given time, the studio is working on about four projects and that they now have a schedule for one new movie a year through 2012.
The Pixar presentation wrapped-up at 8:45 p.m. and Harry came back on the big screen, wearing a red jacket with the cryptic "BnL" logo that we saw in the WALL-E clips. That thing about how the movies had been about human corruption? Harry confirmed that in his lead-up to the next film: The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
But first... more trailers! There was one for The Exterminator (I actually rented that one a long time ago), a commercial for pizza, and then a trailer for something called Sorceress, which looked like schlock from the fantasy-laden days of the early Eighties that gave us real classics like Beastmaster, Krull and Yor: Hunter From the Future (okay I may be going too far with that last one...). I mostly remember the Sorceress trailer because of the giant floating head of the woman with Death Star laserbreath.
- THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)
"He looks like a demonic Captain Kangaroo."The first Vincent Price film that Butt-Numb-A-Thon has ever shown! I think I may have heard of this one no more than three times over the years. I'm telling y'all here and now, Butt-Numb-A-Thon seriously has left me wondering what other great movies have I missed during my life. In that regard, as a celebration of all films and opening up new appreciation for those that don't get nearly enough respect and admiration, I think that Butt-Numb-A-Thon succeeded wildly (it sure did for me).
-– Me, to a guy sitting next to me, during The Abominable Dr. Phibes at Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9, Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz in Austin, Texas on December 8th, 2007
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is six scoops of crazy with sprinkles on top. Price is Anton Phibes: a brilliant musician and theologian who is thought to have died in a car wreck while rushing to get to his ill wife... who was herself in surgery. Alas, poor Victoria Phibes dies on the operating table! So a now disfigured Dr. Phibes goes into seclusion and spends the next several years plotting revenge on the doctors and nurses who he blames for killing his wife. But he doesn't just murder them: he devises horrible methods of death that are inspired by the Ten Plagues of Egypt from the Book of Exodus (my favorite was probably the frog mask). Loud in sound and color, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a camp horror delight!
10:30 p.m now, time for a break. Harry announced that the next movie would be a perfect follow-up to the previous one: Tim Burton's new film Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp. Which I knew absolutely nothing about other than seeing the title a few times in the past months. But hey, it's a Tim Burton movie and it's got Johnny Depp in it so I figured it had to be good. I didn't ask questions: just settled in to enjoy whatever the heck it is that we were about to see.
After the break we got to see what at first seemed like another trailer for Big Trouble in Little China. But this one had a computer-rendered Harry Knowles as Jack Burton driving a big-rig. And then more trailers: Voyage of the Rock Aliens, Get Crazy, and Freckles.
And then, right around 11 that night...
- SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
I loved this movie so much, that I regret that my wife Lisa wasn't with me to share it with (I'll be taking her to see it on opening weekend). This tied with Mongol as my favorite "new" movie of Butt-Numb-A-Thon. Sweeney Todd continued the "vengeful serial killer in London" vibe initiated by The Abominable Dr. Phibes. This might be the best Tim Burton movie that I've seen since Ed Wood. It's also by far the bloodiest work he's ever done.
There's more that I'd like to say about Sweeney Todd, but as I saw it pretty cold and ended up so delighted by it, I'd like to give others that same opportunity to be surprised by it too. The only thing that I'll add about it – and I only say this to try to thoroughly chronicle Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 – is that during Sweeney Todd the Drafthouse staff went around serving free meat pies to everyone. I can't remember seeing anyone actually eating the things though. Can't say I’d blame 'em (and I was still full from pizza so I didn't eat any either) but it must be said: you gotta respect the twisted sense of humor of the Drafthouse guys!
I'll not only be going to see this again, but I'll be buying the soundtrack.
It was 1 a.m. when Sweeney Todd ended. We were on the downhill stretch of Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 and it was time for another break. Harry announced that the next movie would be Lonely Are The Brave. Some more trailers: Blind Fury, Rambo III, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (Estelle Ghetty with a handgun? In a movie with Sly Stallone? It really happened, children...).
- LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962)
Douglas plays Jack Burns: a cowboy who refuses to join along with the rest of modern society. He has no Social Security card or driver's license, and he lives as an itinerant ranch hand. A scene early in the movie sets the tone for everything that follows: Burns on his horse, trying to cross a busy highway. Jack Burns refuses to live in a time other than that when a man could cross a landscape unencumbered by barbed-wire fence and power cables. Unfortunately time and modern society don't look too kindly on his free-willed spirit. When Burns hears that a friend has been jailed for helping illegal immigrants, he gets himself arrested so that he can bust his buddy out. But his friend would rather wait in jail rather than put his family at more risk, so Burns springs out alone.
This movie was much like First Blood, so far as the "outsider from society on the run from the law" angle goes. Walter Matthau is the sheriff who must bring in Burns, despite coming to respect Burns's stubbornness. Also look for George Kennedy playing a hard-ass deputy eager to give Burns a bad time. And Carroll O'Connor plays a truck driver in a seemingly unrelated side-story that ultimately collides with Jack Burns's plight.
This is a movie that made me laugh, and brought me to the point of tears. The closing shot of Lonely Are The Brave is, for me anyway, an extremely haunting image that sums up the movie better than any words possibly could. If every other movie at Butt-Numb-A-Thon was sub-par and this was the only standout, then seeing Lonely Are The Brave for the first time alone made this trip one worth taking.
A break. It was 3:20 a.m. More trailers: Man Beast, W, 3 In The Cellar, The Evictors.
- THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)
But I would be willing to give it another chance.
So The Poughkeepsie Tapes is drawing a lot of flack right now. I'm not going to attempt to defend it. But I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon and openly bash it either.
I can't figure out what exactly the filmmakers were trying to do with this movie. Is it a horror? Is it a comedy? Not once did I feel particularly scared or humored by this film. But in the past few days since Butt-Numb-A-Thon I can't help but wonder if I (and perhaps others) are blaming John and Drew Dowdle for something that was sincerely beyond their control.
Did The Poughkeepsie Tapes suck most of the good mojo out of the Butt-Numb-A-Thon audience? It sure did. And it never fully recovered either. But was it a plainly bad movie... or just bad timing?
It's like this, folks: I wonder if, had this been programmed for earlier in the show, when people could watch it a lot less bleary-eyed and minus the elevated serotonin that comes with eating so much food, if The Poughkeepsie Tapes might have had a somewhat more positive reaction.
That far into the stretch, especially at that time of night, and most people can't focus their mental faculties on any movie... much less one that might demand such focus. I barely remember the "dismemberment expert" and whatever it was still awake in the inner fog of conscience telling me that MapQuest as a website didn't exist in 1991 or 1993 or whenever. This is stuff that with a fully aware and cogent mind, I could probably laugh at. So would probably a lot of other people. But not at that hour. Not after a continuous stream of movies that while not particularly "shallow", didn't require consistently steady brain functions to fully appreciate the filmmakers' efforts, either.
It's kinda like Police Squad!, the original half-hour comedy: ABC pulled the plug on it because to "get" the show, the viewer has to actually pay attention and invest his or her thought process toward understanding the humor, instead of having it served up pre-digested. And I think that's what a lot of people by that point during Butt-Numb-A-Thon (and I count myself among that number) were expecting, even needing that far along in the game.
I want to give the Dowdle Brothers the benefit of the doubt, and believe that with The Poughkeepsie Tapes they were attempting that same kind of high-brow entertainment. If that's what the Dowdle Brothers were sincerely aiming for with The Poughkeepsie Tapes then they should be commended, not condemned. It means that they think highly enough of their audience than to insult our intelligence or "lower the bar".
I'm not saying that The Poughkeepsie Tapes is outstanding. It could be. And it could also deserve the terrible reputation that it gained at Butt-Numb-A-Thon. But I want to be able to see this again, in a more aware state of mind that can grasp the nuances, before rendering a final judgment on this movie.
At 4:40 a.m. Tim League came out and said that John and Drew Dowdle weren't able to make it for a Q&A as it had been hoped.
Then it was Harry's turn again on the big screen with some Fanboys news: the movie's not finished yet 'cuz they’re doing some more shooting, but there were some clips that they were able to show. Although I've followed Fanboys's development since 1998, this was the first real bit of footage that I've seen so far. Looks... promising. I didn't care too much for the sexual references though, not for a movie about something like fans's love for the Star Wars movies. But as these are supposed to be outtakes and not for the final release, I've no problem with that. Will have to just wait and see how the end product looks.
At 4:55 a.m Tim League said that we would be watching Teen Wolf. A few seconds of it ran and then the film stopped and melted in the projector. This was something of an in-joke for past attendees of Butt-Numb-A-Thon. Even as a "new guy" to the event, I thought it was pretty funny.
Then came what was my least favorite movie of the event...
- TEEN LUST (1979)
Directed by James Hong, who's been in a jillion movies over the years including Big Trouble in Little China and who also played the part of Chew, the eye designer from Blade Runner. Ahhh Hong, if only you could have seen what we saw with our eyes.
This is a movie about how NOT to make a movie. Bad acting, bad costuming, bad music (was that the theme from the original The People's Court that I heard in there?!?), bad best boying, bad catering... you get the picture. And absolutely NO plot at all! It was like they were making things up as they went along. Pretty mindless stuff. I won't say it was the most painful movie that I had seen in my life, because the pain was yet to come...
But all the same, for whatever reason there was for putting it on the program, I won't disparage Teen Lust's place at Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9. Every legitimate movie (ain't talking pornos here) is, somewhere or another, a work of love. Each film represents valuable time and energy spent making it, that the people involved earnestly believed that they were doing the right thing to go to the effort to make it work. Sometimes it does and other times... it doesn't. Teen Lust is a movie that doesn't work at all. But to its credit I'll also say that TEEN LUST is a product of its time. Nothing more and nothing less. For that alone it deserves some respect as a curious relic of late-1970s filmmaking.
We were now at 6:30 a.m. After the break, Harry came back on and commented on how at Butt-Numb-A-Thon 2, that the animated version of The Hobbit was shown as a warm-up to the following year's release of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. And with J.J. Abrams's Star Trek movie coming out next December, Harry thought that it would be appropriate (especially since word on the street is that this ties in quite a lot with the new movie) to show the classic...
- STAR TREK episode: "The City on the Edge of Forever" (1967)
Digitally remastered, with new CGI special effects and in high-definition. Looked BEAUTIFUL!! And this was the perfect way to come out of the previous four hours and into the morning. I'm still surprised at how many people had said that they had never seen this episode at all before, because forty years later this is perhaps still the greatest and most defining single episode of a Star Trek show ever made.
At 7:30 a.m., it was time for breakfast. The Drafthouse staff was going around taking orders and delivering food.
What happened next was without a doubt one of the most evil things that I have ever witnessed in my life (and I've seen evil, believe you me)...
Tim League came out on stage and said that he had programmed a special short film, that he had seen at some festival and he thought that this would be perfect for Butt-Numb-A-Thon. He then brought out Gary Huggins, who made a movie called First Date, and we were told that he followed that up with Feels So Good. Huggins said that Feels So Good was something he wanted to do after 9/11, that would be upbeat and positive and make people smile.
So picture it: people are just starting to eat breakfast. And they've been told to expect a "happy" movie.
So here comes...
- FEELS SO GOOD (2007?)
Fifteen minutes of graphic footage of a urethroplasty! Accompanied by Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good". Horrified screams of aghast disbelief filled the Drafthouse. One poor girl went running out look like she was going to blow chunks all over. A well-known person in attendance had his face buried in his hands in disgust. It was evil and sick and demented... and I was having a giggle-fit of laughter the whole time! Pretty soon though we were clapping our hands to the music. I never thought I'd live to see the day when surgery on some poor schlub's anus would bring together so many in good fellowship.
Then at 8 a.m. came the strangest, ugliest, most racist, most pornographic, most offensive, most unbelievable film that I have ever seen. And the movie from Butt-Numb-A-Thon that has left me feeling the most conflicted...
- FAREWELL UNCLE TOM (1971)
An Italian movie that was filmed in parts of the southeastern United States as well as Haiti during the regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the premise of Farewell Uncle Tom (originally titled Addio Zio Tom and sometimes called Goodbye Uncle Tom) is that a film crew from Rome has traveled back in time to the antebellum South so as to document American slavery. It was made by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, with music by Ritz Ortalini.
The cinematography itself is beautiful. The editing, outstanding. So is the audio quality. Ortalini's music haunts and resonates. On a strictly technical level, everything about this movie is a profound work of art.
But there is something very, very wrong if you are not bothered on some level by the content of Farewell Uncle Tom.
It's kinda like a Rorschach test: you see in this movie what it is that you want to see. And it's not necessarily the same thing from moment to moment.
Farewell Uncle Tom is the most over-the-top cinematic assault on the senses that I've ever been hit with. No matter who you are, you will be offended by this movie, and probably dozens of times over by the point the black dude's mind is screaming "BECAUSE YOU ARE WHITE!!" at the end of the movie.
I won't deny it: I was absolutely bothered by this movie. I thought it went too far in confronting the audience with the dark potential of human nature: not because of the sheer boldness of the filmmakers but because they overdid it. There are only so many times that you can witness rape in a single movie before it fails to move you anymore, and whatever else happens on top of that becomes a dreary bore. Watching the reporter be seduced by a 13-year old virgin made me quietly pray for there to finally be an end to this movie.
So yeah, Farewell Uncle Tom has shock porno. And I don't care for porno the least bit. But if that's all that this movie was about, I wouldn't be spending so much time writing about it. Indeed folks, I have come not to bury Farewell Uncle Tom, but to praise it (seriously).
There's also the question of the historical accuracy of Farewell Uncle Tom: something that the filmmakers swear at the beginning of the movie that they are adhering very strictly to. I'm a guy with a bachelors degree in the field, going for my masters in American history. And from my own perspective, there was a lot of stuff in Farewell Uncle Tom that was... well, wrong. At least in how Jacopetti and Prosperi chose to portray this aspect of American history.
There's no denying that there were some very bad things that happened regarding slavery. But Farewell Uncle Tom would have you believe that this kind of treatment was universal. Folks, it wasn't. That's not to say that abuse didn’t happen, and when it did it tended to be more gruesome than anything you might have seen depicted in this movie. Laws on the books in every slave state fully empowered owners to maintain control by any means necessary, including indemnity from physically abusing their slaves.
Legally, slaves were property. That doesn't mean that slavery was right, only that at the time it was something that did happen and was enforceable by law. And although abuse has been amply documented in both written accounts and photographs, it was far from ubiquitous, for the simple fact of the matter that it makes no sense whatsoever for someone to abuse personal property. Any slave, no matter the age, was an important investment that represented quite a lot of money. And it's not usually in human nature to buy property only to abuse that property for sake of abuse.
Indeed, modern research indicates that as a general rule, slave owners did whatever they could to take care of their slaves and see to their needs, including that of family stability. I'm old enough to remember when Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder was fired by CBS for saying basically the same thing that Farewell Uncle Tom depicted about masters using their slaves as breeding stock. There is plenty of evidence indicating that this wasn't an unheard-of practice. But for the most part slaves had family relations as normal as their white owners. They were encouraged to marry and raise their own children, even. And although in many slave weddings the vows to be recited went "until death or circumstance do you part", the classic image of the cruel master forever separating a black mother from her children by taking them to the market was far from a common occurrence. Toward the end of the institution of slavery, slave families were mostly being sold and traded as entire units, rather than being split apart.
By the way, here's something for you to consider: Nobel-winning economist Robert Fogel believes that slaves in the pre-Civil War South, on average, were able to keep about 90 percent of the income that they made. Think about that: 90 percent. Now how big a percentage of your own income are you allowed to keep after taxes to the government in 2007? But we'll get back to that thought in a bit...
Farewell Uncle Tom does have moments where it's obvious that some research went into this film though. The story of the slaves who escaped as a white man and his slave? That really happened. Their names were William and Ellen Craft. Ellen was born of a black woman and her white master, and had unusually light skin. For the holidays of 1848 William and Ellen both secured passes for travel to visit family elsewhere (how many people today know that most slaves had fairly broad permission to travel about, so long as they came back within a specified time period?). Ellen actually dressed up like a white man and set off with William posing as "his" slave. Eight days after they left Georgia, on Christmas Day, they arrived in Philadelphia as free husband and wife.
But you want to know what pissed me off most about Farewell Uncle Tom? There's a scene not too far into it of a church service. Well-dressed white parishioners are seated at the front and black slaves in dingy clothes are standing at the back. They are listening to Reverend Thornton Stringfellow, who was a real minister and infamous proponent of slavery, preaching about how slavery is a divine institution and that to doubt it is to question the will of God Himself...
The white people are listening in rapt attention, nodding their heads and agreeing. And the black slaves... are agreeing with him also. I saw the black man with his hands together in supplication and that particularly outraged me.
No one is daring to defy this cassocked twit in the pulpit. No one is standing up to say "Stop this is WRONG dammit!" Instead everyone in the place – white and black alike – simply accept what this loon is saying and accept it as gospel truth, because he tells them that he comes in the name of God.
Why did that scene bother me so much? Last year I ran for school board. It was a non-partisan race and there were a lot of candidates (sixteen hopefuls going for five seats). With that big a field, a single vote could make all the difference. And I would have definitely appreciated getting every vote that I could. A number of people that I personally know didn't vote for me though. They couldn't vote for me at all. Because they voted a straight-party ticket and when you do that you can't vote in the non-partisan races. They've bought too much into the con that God has ordained one political party over another. They're good people. But in my heart I doubt that they'll ever shake loose from the inculcated belief that God actually gives a damn about worldly politics.
They're slaves. Just like too many other people in this country are today. Slaves to blind ideology and party. Slaves to sex and entertainment. Slaves to government handouts. Slaves to whatever else our own masters in the media and elitist political circles and "spiritual leaders" decree for us.
They tell us to separate into "conservative" and "liberal" camps. We do it, without asking them why. They have us hate one another, and so turned onto fighting each other that we're too occupied to notice them stealing from us and raping our posterity of a future.
They lord themselves over us, and we don't bother to demand of them "Who in the hell gave you the authority?"
Why is it that some can wrap themselves up in a flag, or put on a badge, or hold up a Bible, or claim some "scientific study", and the rest of us are not just willing to do as we're told but we gladly accept it? Are we so shallow that we have to let others define us rather than define ourselves?
How are too many Americans in this day and age really that much different from the slaves depicted in Farewell Uncle Tom? At least enough of them were only willing to be bound physically. They didn't bend their minds toward another's will. Can a lot of us in our own era boast the same?
When we don't act like the individuals that God made us to be, we become slaves. If you don't think for yourself, there’s always someone out there willing to think for you.
We no longer have Reverend Thornton Stringfellow of the state of Virginia, but we still have Pat Robertson of Virginia Beach and James Dobson of Colorado Springs and Hillary of New York and Bush in the White House and countless "gurus" on syndicated television, all claiming to be anointed and favored by the Almighty. They want us to believe that we "need" them. That we can't live without them. That they are good masters and that we are like children. To their peril, they forget that God is no respecter of persons.
And then there finally comes defiance. Someone else comes along claiming to be sent by God. That's all it takes. Rationality fades. God becomes a weapon of collective will. Regard for individual life becomes like a vapor. People die.
I didn't like the coda to Farewell Uncle Tom at all, because it makes no sense. Or perhaps it did. The last several minutes of the film are of a modern (early-1970s anyway) black man in a priest’s outfit sitting on a beach and reading William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. He sees the white people frolicking around him and he starts fantasizing about killing them just as Nat Turner did in his 1831 revolt.
I've never liked what Nat Turner did: killing a lot of mostly innocent people, including children, with axes and knives. Some of his followers did pick up babies to bash their brains out on the walls. Nat Turner deserves no more sympathy than anyone else who also claims to be following "the will of God".
Maybe in some weird way, that was part of the filmmakers' master plan though. To cap the whole thing off with a demonstration of what this kind of mindset invariably leads to. There is absolute good and absolute evil. But in our lives on this earth we yet see through a mirror darkly and it still looks like a myriad shades of gray. It's the height of folly to believe that we might already possess the wisdom to see the world, no pun intended, as a matter of black and white.
I'm probably going to draw some flack for saying this, but I think that Farewell Uncle Tom is a brilliant expose on modern America, far more than it is a "documentary" about slavery a century and a half ago.
Farewell Uncle Tom is ultimately how human cruelty is excused and even celebrated in the name of God and society and science. And how all too often the abused will acquiesce and bow their knees to their supposed masters.
If Harry wanted to examine human nature and its proclivity toward evil with this Butt-Numb-A-Thon, he couldn't have wrapped it up any more powerfully than he did with Farewell Uncle Tom. I think that although it's not explicitly stated, that this movie also has quite a lot to say about how to choose to turn aside from that nature... if we want to.
I honestly feel different after this experience. Not just about Farewell Uncle Tom but about it and everything that preceded it during the program. Jim Valvano, the much-beloved basketball coach at North Carolina State who succumbed to bone cancer in 1993, said shortly before his death that every day we should laugh, be made to think, and be moved to tears. "Think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry - that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."
If you went to Butt-Numb-A-Thon this past weekend with an open mind, without really demanding to see something that may or may not have been coming anyway, you were made to laugh and think and cry a lot. Not too bad a way to spend 24 hours, if ya ask me. I certainly feel like I came out of this a perhaps wiser person.
By this time, 23 hours into Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9, we were all pretty much thoroughly drained. Especially from the previous several hours of programming. We were in dire need of something different. So for the final movie of the event, following the trailers for Halloween III (which I think is a good movie but it should stand on its own without having "Halloween" as part of the title), Nightmares, and Trick Or Treat, we saw the first public screening of...
- TRICK 'R TREAT (2008)
Loved it!! Kind of a throwback to Creepshow and Cat's Eye and other horror anthology films of the Eighties, with a bit of Pulp Fiction-style “cut-up” storytelling. Michael Dougherty wrote and directed this collection of four stories set on the night of Halloween. Brian Cox, Dylan Baker and Anna Paquin were some of the faces that I recognized (but I caught a few others too). This should be quite a success when it comes out around Halloween next year. And I hope it's a big enough hit to warrant further entries.
After Trick 'R Treat finished, Drew McWeeny did a quick question/answer session with Michael Dougherty.
Then there was a raffle for prizes and everyone sang "Happy Birthday" to Harry, and that was it for Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9. We left the Drafthouse and parked outside was a big yellow Hertz fan packed with the HD-DVD players. I gave the guy my ticket and left with my new player, trying to figure out how to get it back home to North Carolina.
Final verdict on Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9: AWESOME event and well worth the wait it took to get in after all these years! I'm hoping that I'll be able to come again next year and bring some friends to share the good times with (Lord willing there'll be a whole contingent of us from the Tarheel State :-).
EDIT 1:39 p.m. EST: I also submitted another version of this review to Ain't It Cool News and Harry Knowles posted it earlier this morning. Here's the link!