Comfortably Butt Numb

11 Movies, 24 Hours, 230 Stinky Film Fans

Comfortably Butt Numb
Photo By John Anderson

It's a gorgeous Saturday morning -- clean, crisp, and blue, the kind of morning meant for Frisbees and dogs and maybe a light sweater. A day to worship Mother Nature. Yet here I am, at the altar of another god altogether -- movies -- readily signing over my next 24 hours to a darkened theatre crammed tight with sweaty bodies. I have only myself and Ain't-It-Cool-News guru Harry Knowles to blame. For the second year, he's hosting the Butt-Numb-a-Thon, a 24-hour movie marathon at the Alamo Drafthouse. It's part birthday celebration for Harry, part haven for film fanatics, part exercise in masochism. But it's also Harry's gift to his fans, fellow lovers of comic books and Fifties sci-fi, superheroes and samurai stories.

As I'm let off at Fifth and Colorado, I stand on the curb with my bag full of provisionals and flash back to the third grade: Mom drops me off at my first slumber party. I'm nervous and hopeful, excited in a gut-punch sort of way, but I also have this nagging thought in the back of my head. It'll all be fun and games at first, but I know that after the nail polish has dried and the Christian Slater videos have been mooned over, six hours later I'll be on the phone in tears, begging Mom to take me home.

I make sure there's a quarter and dime in my pocket, just in case, and dive in to the crowd.

Sat., Dec. 9, 11:49am 230 fans from near (Austin) and far (Iowa, L.A., New Zealand) are queuing up for the long-sold-out event. They discuss their various theories on what will be shown (Harry has kept the program a tight-lipped secret). Survivors from last year's fest wear garish orange shirts memorializing the first numb-a-thon and its resulting "festering ass sores." I discreetly pat my own ass, wondering what lies in store for it.

12:25pm The Drafthouse isn't the biggest theatre around, the screen isn't the largest, and the seats don't recline. But it has what most theatres do not: a soul and a sense of humor. When people talk about the Alamo, they get kind of religious. There's a reason. To go there once is to experience a spiritual reawakening. To go there again is to come home. Owners Tim and Karrie League don't just know the movies they show here; they love them, too. It's film geek love and it's infectious.

The crowd settles into the theatre. The smart ones have brought pillows, blankets, even sleeping bags. It's feeling very church lock-in, only this is the cult of Harry, and they are here to revere movies. Speaking of the Buddha, he ambles out and addresses the masses. He warns that there will be no sleeping. Whatever, we chuckle to ourselves. Whatchagonnado about it, Mr. Big Shot? Then he produces the tennis racket. A tennis racket that dispenses electric shocks. He demonstrates on his friend Mondo. Repeatedly. Fifteen-love, Harry.

12:30ish Harry unreels the first film, Destination Mars, a movie about women from Mars, in the great tradition of sci-fi clunker Plan 9 From Outer Space.

2:11pm The crowd squeezes into the Drafthouse's lobby for the 15-minute break between films. Within seconds, it turns into a smoky melee, with numb-a-thoners grappling for space, angling their way to the bar to order food, and lining up for the bathroom. But there's a palpable sense of community here -- Iowa's striking up a conversation with L.A., orange shirts seek out other orange shirts, all of them speculating as to what Harry will show next. It's like Christmas, over and over again, with 11 giddy grabs at opening up a new celluloid present.

2:31pm Remember that Christmas when you wanted an Atari player and instead you unwrapped a sweatshirt with a purple cow applique that your grandma wouldn't be caught dead wearing? And so goes Harry's second selection, the 1977 cartoon The Hobbit.

So I go to sleep instead.

I fully recognize how pathetic it is to cave in just two hours into the affair. But there's something to be said for conservation of energy. That and I'm sort of hungover.

4:25pm So sleep was a bad idea. Really bad idea. Cranky and hot, I stumble toward the bathroom to splash water on my face. On the way, I snicker at the long line snaking out the men's bathroom. There are about 10 guys for every girl here, which means I saunter into the no-wait women's restroom while the men squirm in line. This is what is known as poetic justice.

4:45pm Harry delivers his first coup. He's secured Sam Raimi's brand-new, not-yet-released film, The Gift. Starring Cate Blanchett and Keanu Reeves, The Gift is a subtle, freaky film about a psychic and her attempts to track a killer in Georgia. With the same killing-'em-softly power as his 1997 A Simple Plan, Raimi serves up an elegant, terrifying thriller that could easily hold its own next to a Hitchcock suspense film. And yes, Keanu can act, and no, he never once says "duuuuuuuude."

7:22pm Harry introduces a black-and-white doubleheader. First up is Michael Curtiz's The Sea Wolf followed by the little-seen Busby Berkeley musical, Wonder Bar. The print is rare; most copies of the film have been edited, the film's last musical number excised. Why? Because Al Jolson appears in blackface, singing and strolling through a black man's "heaven," where "the porkchops grow on trees" and streets have names like Possum Pie Grove and Watermelon Palace. Incredulous audience gasp goes here. It's a document of profound historical importance. This is the stuff we shouldn't be allowed to forget.

10:12pm It's getting kinda farty.

11:06pm "This is where the festival gets good," Harry announces. More like this is where the festival hits its ecstatic, adrenaline-pumped high. Harry unveils Snatch, the new caper from Guy Ritchie (of Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels and Madonna-lovin' fame).

Waiting in the dark for the film to start, one anxious festivalgoer bellows, "I want Snatch!"

"You ain't gonna get it like that!" another attendee cleverly shouts back.

Snatch is phenomenal. It's got the same fever-soaked, steely pace of Lock, Stock, the same wicked humor and dirty-nailed yet oddly endearing cast of crooks. The cast is huge and uniformly fantastic, including Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Farina, and Brad Pitt (sporting a hilarious, largely indecipherable accent). Also sublimely funny is Ade, a British actor making his film debut as Tyrone, a getaway driver with substantial girth. Ade's flown in from London for the screening. After the show, he chats it up with Harry, answering a couple of questions and making the requisite cracks about Harry and his similar wingspan.

Sun., Dec. 10, 1:30am Following the screening, Ade offers the following thoughts on his extra-large appeal: "Not many people who see me are going to forget me. I'm a good-looking motherfucker."

2ish The porn has landed. Harry cranks out a Russ Meyer's skin flick, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. A seduction-by-dildo sequence elicits big laughs, but eventually the laughs turn to titters into groans into long, awkward silences. "Russ Meyer just bores me," I overhear a guy say to his friend. "Does that make me less of a man?"

3:20am On the way to the bathroom, I bump into a wall. Hard. It just jumped out at me. You know how walls are.

5:33am My fight to stay awake is lost. Screw it. I'm in a depressing, lonely place, tired of contorting my body in unnatural ways, tired of being in the dark all the time.

7:06am I stumble outside and am shocked to find a garbage truck making its rounds. I look around at a few of my groggy, long-faced companions and they seem just as bewildered. It is no longer conceivable that there is a functioning world outside these walls. Our hovel has become the Drafthouse, our fate in Harry's grubby hands, our limbs unresponsive and our thoughts bleak.

And it's starting to smell really bad.

7:50am As a neat precursor to the Japanese samurai film, Shogun Assassin, Harry is presented with one of only 20 swords used in Ang Lee's upcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Harry offers us the chance to hold the sword. However, 18 hours into this bleary-eyed madness, the sight of dazed numb-a-thoners waving the sword around is not altogether comforting.

"Holy fuck! I can't wait!" Harry enthuses about the next film. But it isn't enough to keep me up, or anyone else in my row.

9:30am The end is in sight. Breakfast is served, faces are washed, teeth are brushed. There's a renewed vigor and eager anticipation as to what final cinematic gift we'll get. It's gonna be good, we can feel it. It's gonna be ...

9:47am ... Ed Gein? Harry chooses to conclude the festival with this psychological horror film about the serial killer who inspired Psycho. Know why he picked it? Because, with its decomposing bodies and split-open heads, he tells us, "Your dreams are so fucked." Frankly, at 9:47 in the morning, after a day and night and day again of this twisted, surreal affair, I don't really feel like having my dreams fucked. I do feel a little like taking that samurai sword at Harry, or maybe just a baseball bat. I fight back in the only way I can: I follow my ass and go back to sleep.

Just before noon ... Harry carts out his final special guest, Steven Railback, star and producer of Ed Gein, most famous for playing Manson in Helter Skelter. A Q&A follows. The hard-core fans are thrilled; the rest of us just squirm and try to gather our greasy bodies and belongings together. And then it's over.

Groggy and beat-down, I feel permanently scarred from the battle. Like any war veteran, I know it will take me a while to recover, to come to terms with the last 24 hours of my life. But the traumas are fading already, as is my previous venom (or any semblance of sober thought). Even through this punch-drunk fatigue, I can appreciate the festival for what it was: a labor of love and a congregation of addicts to the best drug around -- movies. And so I go home, licking my wounds and clutching my own medal of honor ... a free T-shirt. end story

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