Geeking out with Jesus and Hobbits

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Published in the Austin American-Statesman, December 9 2003, Page A1

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Movie geeks -- the kind of fanatics who scour the Web daily for news and will fly cross-country to see something special -- are often privy to secrets. They know who is cast for what role, who will direct, and how next year's blockbusters end. But they don't get real access. They don't hobnob with stars like Mel Gibson, or see anticipated films -- like Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- before the industry's insiders do.

Unless they hang out with Harry Knowles.

Knowles, the gargantuan gossip-hound behind Ain't It Cool News (one of the Internet's most famous clearinghouses of movie rumors), has celebrated his birthday for the last five years with the "Butt-Numb-A-Thon," a 24-hour-plus feast of flicks both famous and forgotten. In the womb-like comfort of downtown's Alamo Drafthouse, he has shown old movies so weird they deserved their obscurity and new ones so heavily guarded that the audience was sworn never to admit they'd seen them.

Attendees don't know what they will see until it unspools, but that doesn't keep them from coming. Demand for tickets far exceeds the Alamo's capacity, but Knowles' identification with his fellow movielovers is such that he refuses to raise the price accordingly. (The $45 ticket, around $4 per film, sponsors a year-round series of free movies for kids.) For last weekend's event he hand-picked guests, requiring prospective attendees to submit a short bio, a photo, and a paragraph explaining why they deserved to be admitted. Over 3000 people applied, according to Knowles' site, from as far away as Scotland and New Zealand.

One New Zealander didn't need to bother with an application. Fans were fairly sure that "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" would be shown at this year's party, but few expected director Peter Jackson to attend. Emerging from the shadows after the trilogy-capper's credits rolled, Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were greeted by a lengthy standing ovation and enough unadulterated geek love to drown an orc. Dressed more like one of the movie zealots in the crowd than one of Hollywood's highest-paid filmmakers, Jackson proved his affinity for his hosts with the birthday gift he gave Knowles: a prop smoke grenade that was used against King Kong in the original 1933 film. (Jackson's next film will be a "Kong" remake.)

In return, the birthday boy presented a gift of his own. He brought out Austinite Guy Forsyth, whose band performed a live accompaniment to Buster Keaton's classic silent film "The General." Grinning from his seat in the back of the room, Jackson looked duly impressed.

As was the crowd. When they had a chance to interrogate Jackson and company about the films, many viewers began with variations on: "I just want to thank you for giving us these magnificent films." Knowles was saying much the same thing in introduction to "The General" when his voice broke; for one genuinely moving moment, he seemed ready to break into tears.

As delighted as BNAT participants were, they knew another big surprise was coming. "Return of the King" was the second feature screened, and Knowles tends to hold something for the end of the marathon. Since this could be the last BNAT -- ostensible outsider Knowles recently became an official Hollywood player, signing a production deal with Revolution Studios, and thus will have less energy for this kind of thing -- they hoped he would go out with a bang.

The wait for the payoff wasn't uneventful. During the night Knowles boasted that one of the prints he screened, a stunning Korean revenge drama called "Old Boy," was the only one in existence with English subtitles -- and was on its way to Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to see if he should buy the remake rights. Not many people get to stand in line ahead of Mr. Weinstein, and that honor was not lost on BNATers.

A more geek-centric perk came later, with a screening of "Ginger Snaps: Unleashed," a sequel to the cult werewolf film "Ginger Snaps" that may never get a theatrical release. It was the first of the night's three horror films, not counting the goofy "Haunted Gold," a very early John Wayne film that played more like a comedy than a thriller.

Finally, after the sun had appeared outside and breakfast had been served, Knowles announced his coup: "The Passion of the Christ," the Gospel according to Mel Gibson, would be screened in unfinished form. For months, the film has been the subject of controversy. Religious groups have claimed it would be incendiary -- echoing the Christian protests of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (working with a group of Catholic scholars) issued a statement of "concern" about the film -- and entertainment journalists have complained that Gibson has screened it for many non-industry advisers without letting them have a look. The debate heated up when the New York Post screened a bootleg copy of the unfinished film and reviewed it in print.

Gibson, evidently, came to see the benefit of having this over-debated, under-exposed movie seen by a politically, religiously and ethnically diverse group of the film world's most enthusiastic gossips. When the lights went up, some in the group were convinced they had seen a masterpiece -- then Gibson himself arrived for a lengthy Q&A, and his overwhelming likeability won over quite a few more.

Explaining his decision to grant Knowles' group this pre-premiere of the work, Gibson said he wanted a place where "you don't have people with agendas," where people are looking to see movies on their own terms, not in relation to one dogma or another. Gibson was visibly relieved to hear the audience's praise of the film, and offered one tidbit that made them feel all the more privileged after a long night of treats:

The Vatican, which has expressed a strong desire to see "The Passion," would have to wait until the Butt-Numb-A-Thoners were through with it.


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