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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Do-It-Yourself Butt-Numb-A-Thon! When you absolutely positively can't get to Austin...

My eyes, ears and brains are frazzled after this weekend... but in a good way!

Some readers will remember five years ago, when I attended Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 in Austin, Texas. What the heck is a "Butt-Numb-A-Thon"? It's an annual 24-hour long "film festival" in Austin, Texas, hosted by founder/grand poobah of AintItCool.com Harry Knowles. A full day of movies (some vintage, some new) and all kinds of ingenius insanity interspersed throughout! Definitely something that one would be grateful to experience even once in a lifetime. Five years later and I'm still very fond of the memories of Butt-Numb-A-Thon. As well as still haunted and horrified by Feels So Good and Farewell Uncle Tom, but I digress...

Anyhoo, Kristen and I applied for this year's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, and we each made a video for the optional "extra credit". We were quite proud of our respective applications... but Alas! We didn't get in. But with about 10,000+ people competing for around 200 seats, that's understandable. We're gonna keep applying until one day, hopefully, we make the cut and can go to BNAT together. Butt-Numb-A-Thon 14 wrapped up Sunday afternoon and word from the lucky ones is that it was one of the best programmed ever.

But shortly after the attendee list was posted, Kristen and I came up with an idea: "If we didn't get to attend Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin, let's make our own Butt-Numb-A-Thon experience at home!"

So it was that Do-It-Yourself Butt-Numb-A-Thon was born. And that's how we spent the weekend and it was a BLAST!!

The objective: recreate the wild variety of films shown at a typical Butt-Numb-A-Thon, with surprises for everyone participating. Along with the traditions, the food, the humor, as much as would be humanly possible with a "play at home" BNAT. No one would know what all of the actual movies we would be watching were, 'cuz if we did that would defeat the purpose of DIYBNAT, right? Right.

So here's how it worked: there would be 12 films altogether that we would watch. Kristen would pick 6 and I would pick 6. Each of us would choose movies that we were certain the other person had not seen but just in case, we each had "alternates" on hand. On Friday night we flipped a coin and Kristen won: she chose to go first when we began on Saturday morning, and then I would show mine. The other person wouldn't know what he/she was about to watch until the person presenting it gave it a proper introduction before setting the DVD/Blu-ray/Roku playing. It would alternate like this until we had gone through all 12 movies.

Could we pull it off?! Dare we attempt so crazy a plan?? Well Kristen is not just beautiful and sweet but she is intensely geeky... and I'm as borderline as they come. It was worth trying at least once and if this past weekend was any indication it might become a regular tradition :-)

We began at 11 a.m. Eastern Time. And it would not have been a proper Butt-Numb-A-Thon anything without first kicking it off with that hallowed BNAT tradition: the trailer for Stunt Rock...

Then we went straight to Kristen's pick for Do-It-Yourself Butt-Numb-A-Thon's opening film:

Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird (1985)

I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. It's as sweet and thoughtful and wrought with humor as any with the Muppets (incidentally this was the last Muppet movie that Jim Henson worked on before his death). But I also couldn't help but think while watching it that Follow That Bird is a movie that could not and would not be produced today.

The reason for that is the foundation of the plot: that Big Bird is found by a social worker who sends him away from Sesame Street so that he can be with his "own kind" in a town in Illinois. Big Bird finds these dodos (literally) no fun at all so he flees his bureaucrat-imposed new family and strikes out for Sesame Street. Now think about it: would modern-day Sesame Street make social workers out to be the bad guys? Pretty doubtful. I'm trying not to be "political" at all with that assessment but, there it is. That retroactive anachronism along with this movie being released just before Snuffy's long-awaited "reveal" to the adults of Sesame Street makes Follow That Bird something of a time capsule of the way things used to be on this classic show, and could be again. Seeing the gang take off in various wacky vehicles to find Big Bird is fun to behold, especially the sight of Bert and Ernie (with Ernie at the controls) flying across America in a biplane. Now if that doesn't scare ya, I don't know what will. A delightful movie with a good plot and cameo appearances by everyone from Waylon Jennings to John Candy. And a fun way to kick off our personal Butt-Numb-A-Thon!

Then it was my turn, and for my first entry I chose...

Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)

Actually a sequel to The Egg and I. Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride were such a riot in that movie as Ma and Pa Kettle that Universal realized they had a hot thing on their hands and made nine more films featuring the Kettle clan! 1949's Ma an Pa Kettle brings the outrageously raucous family out of their ramshackle farmhouse and into a "house of the future" after Pa wins a slogan contest. There is a real story here, but most of the fun is in witnessing Ma and Pa and their fifteen children running amok trying to make sense of the technology in their new digs. It's hillbilly hijinks of the highest form! And like all classic comedy the Ma and Pa Kettle series has not only withstood the test of time, it seems more timely than ever. Lots of laughing during this one.

Next up was...

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

Louis Malle's 1987 film - based upon his own experiences - about a student in a Carmelite boarding school during the Vichy Regime of occupied France. When three new boys are brought to the school, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) teases and bullies them along with his classmates. And then Julien discovers that Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö) is secretly a Jew, along with the two others boys, being harbored by the compassionate priests of the school.

Before DIYBNAT I thought that apart from The Day the Clown Cried I must have seen every movie ever made about the Holocaust. Apparently not. Au Revoir Les Enfants is a poignant tale of childhood innocence amid senseless hate in a time of war. A movie about the Holocaust should leave you feeling either (A) unimaginably saddened or (B) pissed-off with anger. This movie left me feeling both. We don't see the horror of the concentration camps but somehow, watching children suffering for nothing more than their religion roils the emotions like very little else can. A very powerful film and to me, a genuine discovery of foreign cinema at its finest.

About six hours into DIYBNAT, more or less. Time to unleash...

The Long Ships (1963)

Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, and a shockingly lithe Russ Tamblyn in a tale of pre-Christian Vikings, Muslim Moors, berseker orgies, grand theft funeral boat, alcohol, the gnarliest execution device ever depicted in a motion picture... and one big-ass bell!

The Long Ships is hammy fun from the golden age of epic filmmaking. Richard Widmark is the Viking adventurer Rolfe, who claims to know the location of "The Mother of Voices": a bell "as tall as three tall men" made of pure gold. Never mind that such a thing defies all known physics (the weight of all that gold would make the thing collapse beneath its own weight). Anyway, Moorish sultan Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier) is obsessed with finding the bell, believing that such a thing made by infidel Christians from gold pillaged in the Crusades should by all rights be in Islamic hands. Rolfe escapes Mansuh and makes his way back to his Nordic homeland so as to raise a crew to find the bell, only to learn that his shipwright father has been conned by the king. Hey, no problem: let's just steal the ship dear ol' Dad made for King Harald's eventual Viking funeral! Of course, Rolfe and company wind up on the Barbary coast and back in the hands of Aly Mansuh.

Two things that everyone who's seen this movie seem to always remember about it: the Mother of Voices itself, and the "Mare of Steel" aka "the playground slide from Hell". Imagine a childrens' sliding board, except instead of the board it's a 20-foot long curving razor blade in the shape of a horse's tail. Now imagine some shlub getting forced to slide down that thing belly-first. Oh yeah and for good measure there's a pad of foot-high steel spikes down below. Rolfe doesn't seem impressed, until Mansuh demonstrates both device and Moorish obedience by having his wife pick one of his own soldiers to "ride the Mare of Steel". The look of terror in that poor dude's eyes when the wife says "Do you believe in Allah? Go then" makes up for the visual lack of an eviscerated corpse... but hey, this was the early Sixties after all. Just let your imagination make up for it. Yeah, it's not the quality of El Cid or The Vikings, but The Long Ships seems determined to be more of a "popcorn movie" than anything else. Widmark pulls off a dashing and at times dastardly Rolfe, but the real neat thing to watch is Poitier as the sadistic Aly Mansuh. It's kinda unsettling to see Poitier take a stab at villainy, but he's amazingly good at it... in spite of the general hokiness around him. Would love to have this movie on Blu-ray someday.

Then it was Kristen's turn again. And believe it or not, until this past weekend I had never before seen...

Three Amigos (1986)

I'm probably the only person on Earth who had yet to see Three Amigos, so I'm not gonna write too much about it. Retro-actively it's like The Artist meets Zorro meets Galaxy Quest. Or something. I dug it :-)

Awright, it was my turn to show a movie next. And I didn't do this to be cruel to my girlfriend. Honest. Really...

The Black Hole (1979)

Kristen's terse reaction after watching The Black Hole spoke volumes: "I can't believe that was supposed to be a children's movie." She hadn't been born when Disney released this movie in 1979, but I remember it well: the TV commercials, the trading cards, the action figures, the illustrated storybooks and "read-along" book and record sets in the kiddie section of the bookstore... I didn't see The Black Hole until some years later and all that time I thought it was a science-fiction film for children.

Then I watched it.

Good Lord...

What the hell was Disney thinking? No wonder this is the studio's only motion picture known to have sent children into counseling and therapy. The Black Hole is the cinematic equivalent of a gingerbread house: using the sweet seductive candy of cute robots and ray guns to lure unsuspecting youngsters into a dark spiraling tale of obsession, slavery, metaphysical and theological insanity, and gruesome murder. Maximilian alone was more than enough to arouse the shivers in even adult viewers. And then to propel the viewers into a vision of Hell itself...

I would bet real money that during its theatrical run at least... at least... one parent at the film's conclusion raised a fist at the screen while crying out "Damn you Disney... DAMN YOU!!!"

Okay, it's a movie with problems. Lots and lots of problems on top of its misplaced priorities and sense of tact. But no matter those things, The Black Hole is always going to be a classic film curiosity. This was Disney's first-ever film not to be rated "G". Also one of the last to have an overture playing before the start of the movie. Disney came up with a system to track moving matte shots for the effects work. The U.S.S. Cygnus is arguably among the best-designed space-going vessels in movie history. The sinister Maximilian - a robot with surprisingly little limb articulation - remains a memorable nightmare of mechanical rage. And hey, there's that beautiful score that John Barry composed for the film!

But I think what most left an impression upon Kristen was the sight of Anthony Perkins - Norman Bates himself - being cuisineartted by those spinning blades on Maximilian's arms.

I say again: What the hell was Disney thinking?

Kristen had chosen the next movie well in advance. Curious, how this juxtaposed with the one preceding it. In retrospect, we needed it. Time to come back to Earth... even if it's the most brutally frigid place on the planet.

March of the Penguins (2005)

Too short. I wanted more. March of the Penguins is 80 minutes long... and I wanted more. The cinematography of this film is stunning. Never has so much white looked so gorgeous. This documentary about the year-long mating cycle of the Emperor Penguins touches upon a universal sense of love and nurturing that is hard to not empathize with. A story of species survival and yet, so very human.

Halfway through March of the Penguins, it occurred to me that filmmakers had to go onto that Antarctic ice shelf to shoot the footage. Thankfully, the camera and sound crew get their face time in the end credits... but if there's more about the making of March of the Penguins on the Blu-ray, I might have to pick it up just for that particular behind-the-scenes material.

Next up was something that I had intensely been looking forward to having Kristen watch...

Doctor Who: "The Deadly Assassin" (1976)

It's not a motion picture but since Harry Knowles chose to screen the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" at Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9, that was enough precedent for me. My girlfriend, as big a fan of Doctor Who as she is, had never seen a single episode of original Doctor Who! And I have been trying my darndest to convince her that the original series for all its low-budget frailties stands toe-to-toe with anything from the Eccleston/Tennant/Smith era. This far into Do-It-Yourself Butt-Numb-A-Thon, it was too late for her to back out now, muahahahaha!!

But that said, I'm rather proud of choosing to show her "The Deadly Assassin".

Considered by many to be one of the finest Doctor Who stories ever, "The Deadly Assassin" ran across four episodes in the fall of 1976. The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) has a premonition of the President of the Time Lords being assassinated. Returning to his home planet Gallifrey to prevent the murder, the President is nonetheless killed. The only person see firing a gun was the Doctor. With only hours left before execution for the crime, the Doctor announces that he will run for President.

And then, things go all crazy.

It's the only story of the original series to not have a companion, and that actually works to "The Deadly Assassin"'s advantage. Having the Doctor on his home turf of Gallifrey without a companion tagging along shows us what the Doctor is capable of when left to his own devices.  It also provides a full-bore, unadulterated look at Time Lord culture... and it's not necessarily a flattering one! But that's just a side-dish to the real treats of "The Deadly Assassin": the political intrigue that builds up to not one but two epic action sequences. One of which, the now-legendary "Matrix battle", is thought by many to be the VERY first use of the concept of virtual reality in science-fiction history.

Gallifrey, Time Lord politics and history, corruption, sly jabs at American government, the Master in classic deadly form, psychedelic combat, one of the most controversial episodes in BBC history, and Tom Baker as the Doctor... what more could anyone possibly ask for? The perfect story to introduce anyone to the mythos of the Doctor.

The girlfriend's turn again. Movie #9 was...

Pay It Forward (2000)

This movie makes me regret that I didn't go into teaching full-time, because having seen it I really want to be the kind of teacher that Kevin Spacey plays here.

Between seeing dead people and becoming an artificial boy, Haley Joel Osment portrayed Trevor: a middle-school kid who takes up his social studies teacher's challenge to "change the world for the better".

In general, Pay It Forward is a pretty good movie. I think it could have been stronger in the second third. But there's a real heartbreaker of an ending that makes up for whatever small faults this film has. Best to not say much else about it though, if any among this blog's readers haven't seen it. I did come away feeling as a better person for the time spent watching it.

Time to bring on the tenth movie of Do-It-Yourself Butt-Numb-A-Thon! What turned out to be the second foreign film of the weekend...

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

I first saw this at ActionFest in 2010 and when it came time to pick possible movies for DIYBNAT, this was the first to make the "short list". South Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon's spaghetti Western-ish The Good, The Bad, The Weird is high-octane, heavy ordnance action across the post Japanese-invaded Manchuria of the 1930s. A map purported to lead to a Qing Dyanasty treasure becomes the sought-after prize of an uphold-the-law bounty hunter, a vicious hitman and gun-for-hire, and a bumbling bandit. As well as the Imperial Japanese Army, numerous gangs and assorted black market scoundrels.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird boasts one of the ballsiest train robberies in the history of anything, crazy choreographed gun battles and a full-tilt wacko chase across the desert that easily rivals Indy's pursuit of the Nazi truck from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rife with as much humor as action, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is the kind of film that deserves wider appreciation on this side of the Pacific pond. Kristen was certainly thrilled by it! That's when I knew that I had chosen well :-)

By this point we had clocked in about 21 hours of DIYBNAT. Unfortunately we wound up not going the full twelve movies, for various reasons (having done a real BNAT I can attest that it would have been much easier to be in a real movie theater a few thousand miles from home, without all the "real life" obligations demanding attention here and there). But we did wind up going out on a strong note all the same...

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

One of the few comedies that Alfred Hitchcock made. The Trouble with Harry is, as Kristen put it in her intro, "about a dead body that just can't stop moving". This black comedy has Edmund Gwenn, John Forsythe, Jerry Mathers (yup, the Beaver himself) and Shirley MacLaine (in her first film role) as some of the oddballs who variously come across the corpse of Harry Worp in the countryside of their Vermont village. You'd think that at least one of these people would have thought about notifying the proper authorities, huh? Their negligence to do so leads to dark humor of the kind that Hitchcock was known for but very rarely took to this wild an extreme. A really fun and crazy comedy about the foibles of human nature.

And that was our Do-It-Yourself Butt-Numb-A-Thon. The final film was set to be Avatar, but at three-plus hours long (it was gonna be the director's cut) and real world necessities had us stopping after eleven movies. Still, for one weekend that was a pretty hardcore slate of film variety!

And we had so much fun with it that we are already talking about making this an annual tradition! Perhaps next year inviting a few friends to come over to endure and enjoy 24 hours of films alongside. Would Kristen and I love to get into the real Butt-Numb-A-Thon together one of these years? Yeah, absolutely.

But nobody has to completely miss out on the fun of a BNAT, with a little planning and resolve to experience a wide assortment of movies. Especially movies that one might otherwise never consider giving a looksee.

So if come next November you find yourself downfaced because for whatever reason you didn't get into Butt-Numb-A-Thon (most of us have been there after all), chin up! Get some good friends together and run your own Butt-Numb-A-Thon! Consider it a way to demonstrate your love of film if you can't make the glorious pilgrimage itself :-)