In the display window of a used record store, you can see covers for albums that don’t exist. They bear titles like Flaming Creatures or Heaven and Earth Magic, familiar to aficionados of experimental film, alongside lurid designs by local artist Tom Carey. This exhibit can mean only one thing: the film festival has come to Ann Arbor. Just down the block is the Michigan Theater, which has been operating since 1928. For one week every spring, its spacious main auditorium and cozy screening room host an intimidating array of avant-garde programming. The selections are eclectic in subject matter, submitted from all over the world, and interspersed with recently restored prints of older works. This practice means that no presentation is predictable. The only constant that carries across the festival is the artists’ collective push against the traditional boundaries of their medium.
An example of this ethos in action is Julia Yezbick’s short essay film How to Rust. It begins as a profile of Detroit artist Olayami Dabls, but repeatedly loops out into brief digressions before returning its focus to Dabls’ installation “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust.” Yezbick, who’s affiliated with the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, forays into the life of Henry Ford by way of an old educational film. She also pulls in starkly elemental imagery, like the waters of the Detroit River and the sparks that fly from a welder’s torch. Her intersecting lines of inquiry allow How to Rust’s topics—chemical decay, the auto industry, Dabls’ art—to flower onscreen in their full complexity.
The night before How to Rust played in the Michigan-centric “Regional Films” program, the festival premiered Allison Cekala’s Fundir. Much like Yezbick’s film, it details the relationship between industrial processes and the earth whose raw materials they exploit. Here, the commodity is salt, extracted from a Chilean mine and shipped to Boston. Cekala breaks that journey down into its component parts. The grinding of dusty conveyor belts scores the tedious sifting, loading, and unloading. Once one phase is over, the film’s attention turns to the next. Workers abet the machinery, whether at control panels or atop dunes of salt. This step-by-step structure stresses the operation’s physical scale and requisite labor. Fundir takes a system that extends far beyond any one person and renders it comprehensible in visual terms.
Both How to Rust and Fundir cultivate their own ideas of place. Yezbick foregrounds the waterways and old buildings of Detroit; Cekala locates the mining facility within the bright, flat Atacama Desert. Pablo Mazzolo’s Fish Point takes a more lyrical tack, as shots of a forested island in Lake Erie flip in and out of focus, one landscape sometimes superimposed over another. The colors of the trees change from emerald to blue to an irradiated orange. It’s a playful way to accentuate the spot’s lushness. A similarly gentle beauty pervades the Thai village in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Vapour, though the heavy mists that flood its streets and houses carry sinister undertones. The film, shot in low-contrast black and white, strains to see human activity through the foggy air and gradually gleans signs of political violence. Like its director’s features, it brims with layered sound: bugs chirp, a guitarist strums, a radio crackles. Vapour transmutes a real place into this lingering set of sensory impressions.
Other outstanding works showcased at this year’s AAFF tilted toward interiority. For Solitary Acts #4, Nazlı Dinçel sliced her narrative of sexual awakening right into the 16mm film. The text’s background, initially unfocused, eventually turns out to be a close-up on the filmmaker masturbating. Punctuated by flashing lights and a fragment of “Oops!... I Did It Again,” it’s a bracingly head-on piece of autobiography. Steve Reinke’s A Boy Needs a Friend is a discursive essay on sex and mortality, weaving through cultural touchstones like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Reinke has a knack for oddball associations, introducing a discussion of needlepoint with Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and later suggesting Pinocchio’s nose as a phallic symbol. His comic timing enhances the deadpan punchlines, like when he shows a friend being tattooed with an anus-encircling ouroboros he’d designed, then adds, “I got it on my knee.”
A joke like that would have fit right into the festival’s most revelatory program, which was the Curt McDowell retrospective. Today, McDowell is best remembered for the camp classic Thundercrack! (1975), made with frequent collaborator George Kuchar. He was an Indiana native who moved to San Francisco in the 1960s and worked there until his death in 1987. His sister Melinda and archivist Mark Toscano, who’ve been working to get his shorts restored for the past decade, were on hand to present a sample of his work, most of it from the early 70s, all of it joyously perverse. Even the titles of McDowell’s mock-melodramas can elicit a chuckle—Beaver Fever is one; Wiener & Buns Musical another. As understood through these films, McDowell was a DIY provocateur with a rich sense of humor and a primal lust for men’s bodies. His desire is especially evident in Loads (1980), which cross-cuts between footage he shot of several different men, swelling into an anatomical symphony. His erotic gaze is made manifest on the screen, leaving the audience to like it or lump it.
McDowell was one of a few deceased filmmakers whose work screened this year. Robert Russett’s nerve-jangling abstraction Primary Stimulus (1972) roared through the main auditorium, and Andrew Noren’s diary of shadows The Lighted Screen (1987) played out in an hour of total silence. (Both artists passed away in 2015.) Three of the late Chantal Akerman’s features were programmed as well. News from Home (1977) and No Home Movie ran without incident, but disaster struck during the screening of her documentary D’est (1993). It played for an hour, interrupted by a couple of stops and starts, before the damaged print started melting in the projector, forcing the staff to cancel the screening. This was bitterly disappointing, and it’s a reminder why institutions like the AAFF are so essential. Filmmakers die, and prints decay. The only thing that will keep the work alive is people’s willingness to put money and energy into their love for it.