Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Butt-Numb-A-Thon 11 - Before you BNAT...

I've been lucky enough to attend eight of Harry Knowles' remarkable Buttnumbathons (BNATs, for short), and I don't have favorites; I've found them each remarkable in their own ways. A lot of people point to 2003 (BNAT 5) as the Greatest Year Ever for BNAT, but I have always felt more ambivalent than most about the year that brought us Return of the King, Oldboy, and The Passion of the Christ. Mostly because I felt that 2003 was so much about the premieres, while the few vintage titles (there were twice as many premieres as vintage screenings that year) were more like just set-ups for the new stuff (excepting, of course, the spectacular screening of The General). I have a soft spot for BNAT 4 (my first and the year that introduced me to Night Warning); I was quite fond of BNAT 6, despite its being quite different than the premiere-laden previous year (tremendous vintage this year - The Black Swan, Blonde Venus, Miss Sadie Thompson, and the unforgettable Toys are Not for Children); BNATs 7 and 8 had, I felt, exceptionally strong lineups; and 9 and 10 were the years I felt more connected to my fellow audience members than in other years.

I say all this up front because I want you to understand what I mean when I say that this was my favorite BNAT experience to date, not just for the lineup but for all the other things I listed above that I loved about all the previous BNATs. It was, frankly, the BNAT-iest BNAT that I've ever experienced.

I'll post about each individual film later, but I wanted to start with a general post about the experience and what leads up to it. It takes place each year at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX. Before the original place on Colorado Street closed, that was the perennial venue, but since it closed we've had it one year at the new Ritz location and the past two years at the Alamo South Lamar. The Drafthouse is frankly the greatest theater in the world, because they get that going to the movies is an event. They serve a full menu of food (there are tables in front of every row of seats and there is a full wait staff), they have a full bar, and many movies have special themed menu or bar items - for instance, when we saw Sweeney Todd at BNAT 9, the kitchen baked meat pies and passed them out to the entire audience.

Several thousand people apply to go to this event, but less than 200 will get in, and people travel from all over the world to be there. Many people are not industry insiders, but you'll usually see a handful of well-known names in attendance - Eli Roth, Tim McCanlies, Elijah Wood, Lucky McKee, Rian Johnson, Mike Dougherty - who come just to be in the audience. I had a long journey the Friday before BNAT to come from New York to Austin, but we had people from Ireland, Finland, and even Australia.

I have my own things I like to do when I get to town, and that usually necessitates a car. Most times, I'm combining this trip with trying to spend time with friends who live in Texas, and as such I've missed a lot of the pre-BNAT stuff, notably the party the night before. But this year I was able to go and meet some of the BNAT attendees in a different context than the theater experience. The party doesn't go on all night - after all, we've all got a long day ahead of us - and I like to get a nice hotel room with a comfy bed and get a good night's sleep before more than 24 hours of awakeness.

This year, we had a fairly early lineup call at 9:00am. This was mostly due to the fact that the program was so packed that we were starting an hour early. The BNAT elves have perfected the check-in process so that where we once had to stand out in the cold for a couple of hours and have IDs checked and bags checked for electronics all at once in a slow march into the theater, we now check in at a different building and get our swag as everyone trickles in. This gives everyone a chance to take excess baggage to their car and congregate in the theater lobby until they holler for us.

The theme this year, being the 11th year and Harry's 38th birthday, was THX-1138. We had to submit bald photos of ourselves, which were used on our official BNAT badges and in the yearbook. Our names showed up as our initials and our seat number (mine being PKN1010, for example), which made it harder to find people in the yearbook, but made it easy to seek out who we were sitting next to.

My seat, like last year, was front and center, and I had some awesome row-mates. A married couple on my right who were there for the third year and some cool gals from Mississippi who were BNAT virgins.

The pre-show portion of the event is always incredibly fun. Aside from meeting great people, there's always something playing on the screen as we sit down. This year we saw trailers for Alligator People, The Thief of Baghdad (ah, when Baghdad was an exciting, romantic destination), and Alice in the Jungle. Other clips included some rather lol-tastic Siskel & Ebert outtakes ("sound less excited, Roger"), an old 1950s ad for Pepsodent, Marky Mark ripping off Lou Reed, clips of kids falling down, and some of those sad-larious Syncro-Vox cartoons with the moving lips and static images (which inspired a regular Conan O'Brien feature).

And as the years have gone on, before we get to the first feature, there always tends to be some shenanigans. We'll start with some noteworthy trailers - 99 and 44/100 % Dead (you're actually meant to pronounce every bit of that) with Richard Harris playing a guy named Harry (we knew that because they must have said "Hi, Harry" or something similar about 87 times during the trailer), Death Machines, and The Uncanny (with Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, and KILLER CATS!). And of course no BNAT is complete without the words "Ladies and gentlemen ... SORCERY!" preceding the greatest trailer ever cut by man, Stunt Rock. It's super-magic. Super-music. And super-amazing. After that, for some reason, this year there was a very strange and hilarious guy doing a Bulgarian dance in honor of Harry's birthday (that just kept going and going and going).

And finally, it was time to torture Jeff Mahler, a long-time BNAT attendee and friend of Harry whose favorite movie is Teen Wolf. He has begged and begged for this movie to play at BNAT, but every year, try as Tim League and the Drafthouse might to accomodate his dearest wish, technical difficulties have ruined attempts to screen it the last three years. This year, however, Tim announced that they installed brand new state-of-the-art Dolby technology and assured the longsuffering Jeff Mahler that this would indeed be the year that we would see a complete screening of Teen Wolf. To add weight to the promise, someone from Dolby - like, literally (and I quote) "on behalf of Thomas Dolby" - was on-hand to make sure nothing went wrong and agreed to pay the Drafthouse $15,000 if something did.

*snort* So yeah, once again, no Teen Wolf. Harry started his usual introductory schpiel and some thank-yous, and here's where it got a little surreal (for me, at least). Because Harry singled me out to thank me for a little movie I made out of the 100+ clips of all the past BNAT movies. I'm rather proud of that project, but I never dreamed it would have such an impact, and when Harry said it inspired him to make this BNAT especially great ... I was rather blown away. And just as mind-blowing were the cheers from the audience. I'm not sure I can properly express what it means to me to be sitting in a movie theater, especially at that event, and have something I did be greeted with affection.

And after all that, without further ado, the show officially began.

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