Shortly before 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the cathedral of cinema known as the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, Harry Knowles asked his congregation to rise and swear an oath. No, the irrepressibly zealous film critic, website editor, and ecumenical movie geek was not requiring his acolytes to pledge their undying loyalty to him. Rather, he was insisting they publicly swear not to prematurely reveal on social media any significant plot details of “A Cure for Wellness,” the upcoming 20th Century Fox release having its world premiere at Butt-Numb-a-Thon, Knowles’ annual 24-hour-plus cavalcade of new, classic, and (sometimes justifiably) obscure motion pictures.
Director Gore Verbinski and lead player Dane DeHaan were on-hand to monitor audience reaction for “Wellness,” which is set to open theatrically Feb. 17, and to savor Knowles’ characteristically hyperbolic description of their film — a twisty and creepy thriller about strange doings at a health spa near the Swiss Alps — as “a profoundly fucked-up work of awesome.”
Another BNAT attraction that generated excitement was an early-Sunday sneak peek at the first 40 minutes of “Logan,” director James Mangold’s fierce and frenetic follow-up to “The Wolverine” (2013), with Hugh Jackman playing an aging but not yet obsolete version of the hot-tempered and blade-equipped X-Man. As Mangold explained during a Q&A held after the audience concluded its explosive cheering, he set out to make this “Wolverine” movie (due in theaters March 3) the one that long-time admirers of the super-antihero have been clamoring for, a slam-bang whirligig brimming with rapid-fire action and graphic R-rated mayhem.
But wait, there’s more: “Logan” is set in a not-so-distant future (25 years after the last reported birth of a mutant) where Wolverine is regarded as the Marvel Comics hero equivalent of a retired former sports star who’s still widely recognized, but obscured by often contradictory myths. (In the excerpt shown, there’s actually a brief glimpse of an X-Men comic book.) There have been a lot of stories (and, presumably, movies) about Wolverine’s heroics, “but maybe not all of that really happened,” Mangold teased. “Maybe he’s a Paul Bunyan who’s not so sure that Babe the Ox was really blue.”
Despite lots of levity, the event is dead serious about expressing an all-encompassing passion for movies. Consider: The 18th annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon kicked off at 12 noon Saturday with Martin Scorsese’s unrelentingly demanding “Silence” — which, not incidentally, elicited murmurs of pre-screening anticipation and peals of post-screening applause from marathoners — followed by Felix E. Feist’s “Deluge,” the nearly-legendary 1933 apocalyptic sci-fi drama recently restored for theatrical and home-screen release. After that: Denzel Washington’s “Fences,” the awards-friendly drama based on August Wilson’s prize-winning play, followed by Frank Dietz and Trish Geiger’s “Long Live the King,” an infectiously amusing labor-of-love documentary about the enduring appeal of the original 1933 “King Kong.”
All the titles were personally selected by Knowles, who freely admits that the two-day event — held each year on the weekend nearest his birthday — is kinda-sorta a present to himself. (“I love y’all,” he said Saturday night while acknowledging occasional suggestions for film selections, “but this is really all about me.”) But the sheer diversity of the lineup indicates the fine distinction between the sensibilities of a fanboy, and those of a movie-fanboy.
A fanboy might wonder: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we showed the still-awesome special effects of ‘Deluge’ to a contemporary audience?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we followed ‘Long Live the King’ with clips from the next ‘King Kong’ movie?” (Which the event did when director Jordan Vogt-Roberts arrived unannounced with two eye-popping, crowd-pleasing sequences — one evidently inspired by John Boorman’s under-appreciated “Hell in the Pacific,” the other a full-throttle homage to “Apocalypse Now” — from his forthcoming “Kong: Skull Island.”)
But a movie-fanboy might also wonder: “Wouldn’t it be cool to show the religious drama Martin Scorsese has struggled 30 years to make?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool to show Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in a filmization of a work by a great American playwright?”
Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool to show Leslie Howard as an archaeologist who battles Nazis?” “‘Pimpernel’ Smith,” the rousingly entertaining 1941 British adventure film starring and directed by Howard, was widely embraced as the most pleasant surprise , and not merely because Knowles puckishly primed the audience by suggesting the movie — about a deceptively fusty Cambridge professor who moonlights as a modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel while smuggling political prisoners out of Nazi Germany — likely inspired the exploits of Indiana Jones, and definitely influenced the real-life WWII heroics of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The marathoners responded with full-throated roars of approval because, well, they thought it was cool.
As he has for past editions, Knowles programmed the 2016 iteration in the connect-or-disrupt style of a savvy DJ, sometimes sustaining a tone by following something with a similar thing — since “Logan” reminded Knowles of John Woo’s early Hong Kong films, he followed it with Woo’s “Hard Boiled,” which closed this year’s BNAT at midday Sunday — and other times shifting gears to great effect. He claimed he programmed “Long Live the King” as “the warm hug we all needed after” the emotionally grueling “Fences.”
It would be overly generous to describe each selection as inspired. “Zachariah,” the too-hip-by-half 1971 “electric Western” starring John Rubinstein, Don Johnson, and Country Joe and the Fish, proved only that some marginal movies are too bad even to qualify as camp. (It didn’t help that the print screened had faded into orange.) To be fair, however, Knowles did schedule it during the wee small hours, at a time when unimpressed viewers could take a guilt-free nap.
He also hand-picked the vintage movie trailers screened before each feature, sometimes making obvious choices (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” before a screening of the 1939 “Adventures of Robin Hood,” one of Knowles’ all-time favorites), sometimes demonstrating wink-wink playfulness (“The Big Bus,” the 1976 disaster-movie parody, before “Deluge”). And he saw to it that, sporadically, movie-appropriate snacks — like the chocolate covered banana slices served during “Long Live the King” — were provided.
Call Butt-Numb-a-Thon a private party, and you won’t be far off the mark. You don’t simply purchase tickets — you email an application for them, and Knowles personally approves or rejects each request for a $140 ducat. (Proceeds from ticket sales go to an Austin children’s charity, The Saturday Morning Kids Club.) This year, attendance was limited to only 198 fortunates in a single Alamo Drafthouse auditorium — a number sufficiently small for each attendee to be listed by name and nickname (with accompanying photo) in the souvenir program, and by nickname on the souvenir T-shirt. You could bring your own pillow and blanket to make yourself comfortable during the marathon. And yes, before you ask, there were ample bathroom breaks on the schedule.
Butt-Numb-a-Thon is deliberately small-scale and intimate, but it routinely attracts surprise guests. This year, Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming “Star Wars: Episode VIII,” dropped by to ask attendees for permission to record them as they cheered, then shouted, and then, finally, booed. When he was done, he offered thanks. “And next year,” he promised, “you all will be heard in a ‘Star Wars’ movie.”
Pretty cool, huh?