Attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe. Here, dialogue and narrative lie on the margins, while abstract animation and ethnographic documentary take center stage. Absent are movie stars, paparazzi, and bidding wars; here, a “big name” is someone like Peggy Ahwesh or Lewis Klahr. It’s as if this one week in March at the historic Michigan Theater, just a couple blocks away from the University of Michigan campus, had been carved out of normal space-time and given over to the love of film as an art.
At the AAFF, assumptions about 21st century moviegoing don’t necessarily hold water. Slates of short films dominate the festival’s schedule, and even the occasional feature tends to be paired with a short or two. Digital projection is hardly the default, and the sheer diversity of formats makes each program an object lesson in what 16 or 35 mm can bring to a film. Nor is aspect ratio taken for granted, since each short’s preceded by a mechanical whir as the Michigan’s adroit technical staff reconfigures the screen’s proportions. The programming spans the gamut of everything that might constitute “experimental cinema,” so each screening teems with surprise as well as the promise of vital, new artistic voices.
One such voice belongs to Spain’s Luis Macías, who brought his short The Kiss. Across nine minutes, Macías replays the Edison-sponsored film of the same name over and over again, each time having projected and refilmed it in a new format. Hence iPhone footage builds on Betamax, which builds on Super 8, and so on through a century’s worth of technological progress. History accumulates on The Kiss’s surface, stratum by stratum, as it cycles through the original text. Eventually, the image grows so heavy with visual noise that its actors transform into blobs of humanoid light amidst the grainy darkness. Their intimate act disintegrates into the fuzzy imprint of a gesture. Yet enfolded in this foundational embrace is an implicit record of every screen kiss, and this renders Macías’s conceit not just clever, but poignant.
Similarly bold was Kingdom Come: Rituals, from German artists Vika Kirchenbauer and Martin Sulzer. It puts the viewer inside the very act of flight by way of a camera strapped to a pigeon. As the camera’s buffeted back and forth by soundtrack-pervading wind, it surveys a fragmented city landscape: smears of buildings, trees, and people. The bird dips, then rises, building suspense as its erratic movements tease an eventual landing. Kirchenbauer had a second film in competition, Like Rats Leaving a Sinking Ship, which was the highlight of the festival’s “Out Night” program. It couches the filmmaker’s monologue detailing her life as a trans woman between the clinical observations of her doctors. This audio is then layered atop assorted street scenes, sex scenes, and home videos, forming a caustic autobiographical collage. By centering her own voice, Kirchenbauer undercuts the medical gaze’s scrutiny of transgender bodies.
While Kirchenbauer toys with the metaphorical possibilities of birds and rats, Belgian filmmaker Sarah Vanagt gives the starring role of In Waking Hours to the eye of a cow. A woman purchases this eye from a butcher, then peels away its membrane in accordance with the instructions of a 17th century Dutch scientist. Experimenting on her kitchen table, she discovers that she can see through the eye, just as the cow would’ve seen, and she shares this with her three kids. This synopsis may suggest either Frankenstein-ish grotesquerie or sentimental parent-child bonding, but the tone of In Waking Hours is much more delicate than either option would allow. The scenario plays out tenderly, with minimal dialogue, and Vanagt’s emphasis is not on her characters’ faces, but on what they see through their new lens. Their experiences evoke the joy of visual discovery, which makes this story a perfect fit for a festival like Ann Arbor.
So many of the festival’s offerings gave their audiences opportunities to see through others’ eyes. They peeked into secret worlds inflected by memory. Jenni Olson’s hour-long essay film The Royal Road is another example. It employs two main devices: Olson’s deadpan narration and her static shots of California landscapes, which traverse colonial paths between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The thornier her digressions grow, the more visible the history dotting those paths becomes. Soon they’re no longer hills and highways, but mementos of the Mexican-American War, the production of Vertigo, and Olson’s own checkered romantic past. Every picturesque frame complements her cinephilic nostalgia. Every self-deprecating joke she tells reverberates with those arid vistas. The movie is a delight.
Olson’s fixation on the past aligned The Royal Road with a broader trend of the festival, an awareness of history which permeated even the logic of the programming. While the majority of the work on display was produced within the past couple of years, blocks of competition shorts were often supplemented with a vintage piece or two. So, for example, the opening night concluded with Standish Lawder’s Necrology (1970), and Kirchenbauer’s Like Rats was echoed by the sexual candor of Curt McDowell’s newly restored Confessions (1971). Screenings like these helped to contextualize the brand new entries within traditions of the avant-garde, as did the week-long memorial for the festival’s late founder George Manupelli and juror Joanna Raczynska’s survey of Eastern European shorts from the 1970s. It’s to the credit of executive director Leslie Raymond and programming director David Dinnell (along with the rest of the board and staff) that the AAFF’s structure never lacked for perspective or imagination.
Those traits informed events like the tribute to Harun Farocki, whose Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) cast a wide shadow over the films around it, especially when followed up with Farocki’s more recent Parallel I-IV (2012-14), a dense genealogy of video game worlds. Activist documentarian Jill Godmilow, who presented her own What Farocki Taught (1998), spoke about his expansive legacy: “I can’t think of anyone who has given us so many ideas about seeing.” These events not only exposed the audience to a major, underseen filmmaker, but also provided new lenses for viewing the films in competition. It became hard after that to engage with, say, Ben Rivers’ Things or Louis Henderson’s bravura desktop documentary All That Is Solid without feeling aftershocks of Farocki.
His “ideas about seeing” apply equally well to the digital realities of the festival’s richest retrospective, the two-part “Computer Age,” in which curators Gregory Zinman and Leo Goldsmith presented computer animation from the 1950s through the ‘80s. The shorts it comprised varied from the mandalas of James and John Whitney to the sensory overload of Pierre Hébert’s Around Perception (1968) and then on into kitschy music videos and even an advertising demo reel. (One example featured the words “7 Up: The Uncola!” accompanied by a translucent dancer and hundreds of bubbles.) Together, the shorts traced out a historical narrative of corporation-funded trial and error leading toward broader applications for CGI.
The last short they screened was Barbara Hammer’s No No Nooky TV (1987), which played at the 26th Ann Arbor Film Festival, a full half of the institution’s lifetime ago. Yet in all that time, the short has lost none of its satirical sting. Decades later, its wry merging of the erotic with the digital is more accurate than ever. Even more prescient, though, is Hammer’s aesthetic audacity: her incorporation of new technologies and queer sensibilities into film form. It’s a daring that lives on in the practice of artists like Macías, Kirchenbauer, and Olson. Theirs is a heritage that the festival is performing essential work to sustain.