The Ann Arbor Film Festival makes for an ideal entry point for festival novices wanting to dive into the cinema referred to as avant-garde, experimental, or simply, artist’s. The Michigan Theater hosts all of the screenings for the fest (minus a straggler here and there), making it easy to catch as many films as your heart desires. After 52 years, the festival has created a community for itself in the city. On one end, you have the pros who’ve been there since the beginning and openly opine for the good old days when the smell of activism filled the theater. On the other, you have “the youth”; the University of Michigan providing an inexhaustible supply of the curious and the studious. And, of course, you have the typical film fans and socializers balancing out the mix. This sense of community is cemented by seeing the festival’s guiding lights, executive director Leslie Raymond and program director David Dinnell, constantly on the premises. Their prowling and roaming of the lobby certainly bolsters the close-knit vibe. The atmosphere surrounding the festival was surprising and welcome in equal measures, but it’s the films that bring the people in and it was the films that alternately inspired, provoked, and surprised those in attendance.
One of the AAFF’s signatures are the Juror Presentations, which, as the name suggests, are programs curated by members of the year’s jury. The selection put together by Jeremy Rigsby and Oona Mosna of the Media City Film Festival, located a hop, skip, and jump away in Windsor, Ontario, was the high point of the festival. Granted they had the benefit of choosing from a wider selection of film history (their choices were drawn from artists who have had retrospectives during Media City’s first 20 years), but the ways in which each film built and commented on the others shows the thought and care that went into assembling the program.
The interplay between the films started before the projector began to roll with the description of Peter Tscherkassky’s Shot Countershot (1987) in Rigsby’s introduction as a “piss-take;” an apt description considering the bang-bang simplicity, and briefness, of Tscherkassky’s jab at one of film theory’s sacred cows. The punchline came in the form of the film immediately following: Friedl vom Gröller’s Boston Steamer (2009); the content of which takes little imagination to conjure and caused one declarative outburst of vocal displeasure. Boston Steamer also ties into some of the Action films of fellow Austrian Kurt Kren, whose film 15/67 TV (1967) opened the program. Kren’s film deploys slight snippets of movement arranged repetitiously. Peter Gidal refers to another of Kren’s films, one not included in the program, 3/60 Trees in Autumn (1960), as a “film that forces the viewer to make of the possible jumble of images discreet and separate segments.” Kren saves us the trouble in 15/67 TV, or at least helps us along, by repeating the exact same fragments throughout the film and arranging them in a way that mimics a musical score with each segment standing in for a different note. Frenzied repetition continued into the beginning of Karl Kels’ Rhinoceros (1987), where footage of a rhinoceros’ pen at a zoo is edited in a staccato tempo. Kels’ film settles towards the end as the images are allowed to play out in its entirety, setting the table for Guy Sherwin’s Da Capo: Variations on a Train with Anna (2000), a film made of different takes of a camera movement and renditions of one of Bach’s klavier preludes. Unfortunately, the end of the program was marred by difficulties with the prints (in itself a refreshing change from the technical difficulties of digital projection). Half of Gröller’s Erwin, Toni, Ilse (1969) appeared to have never arrived, and the three reels of Sergei Loznitsa’s Portrait (2002) weren’t marked in English, making it hard to make heads or tails out of the heads and tails. Despite the hiccups, Rigsby and Mosna’s program was outstanding. They’re presenting similar programs at a number of different festivals this year as part of Media City’s 20th anniversary. If one’s playing near you, attendance is highly recommended.
Another festival highlight was Steve Anker’s Juror Presentation. Drawing from a series he co-curated for the Museum of Modern Art, he showed a selection of Regular and Super 8mm films made in the Boston area. All of the films were screened on their original format (with one exception due to last-second misfortune). While the Media City program’s impact came through curation, Anker’s came through a direct connection with the past; an impression Phil Solomon enthused on from the audience during the Q&A afterwards and found in Anker’s (unfilled) hope that Peter Herwitz, whose Mysterious Barricades (1987) opened the program and lives nearby, might pop back onto the radar to make an appearance. The enjoyment found in the program peaked early with Saul Levine’s Notes of an Early Fall, Part 1 (1976). Early in the film, Levine’s collage of footage emits an intense feeling of isolation in its monotony and repetition, with frequent shots of looking out a window to the outside. Even when the camera crosses the threshold into the natural world, it is still alone, watching children play from a distance. A visit with the family in the middle of the film adds a bit of levity, but it’s short lived. A walk with the camera following the snowy grass and occasional glimpse of feet settles the film back into a silence, one of solitude. The observer has survived his flirtation with social interaction, returning to his cocoon where time seems to move a little slower. Levine manages to evoke a listlessness and malaise that’s seldom captured on film.
Mysterious Barriers and Pelle Lowe’s Earthly Possessions (The Looking Glass Trilogy, Part III) (1992) ended up being overwhelmed by the other films in the program. Earthly Possessions was almost literally swallowed by force of the films before and after, Anne Charlotte Robertson’s Apologies (1990) and Luther Price’s Sodom (1989). Only vague memories remain of Lowe’s film despite an intermission giving it some space to breathe after Robertson’s amusingly incessant regrets recorded in direct address to the camera—a list of all the things she feels guilty about, her smoking and the film itself being at the top of the list. The majority of the vagueness is due to Price sucking the air out of the room with his simultaneous destruction and reconstruction of a film strip. Sodom is a haymaker of a film, knocking the viewer to the floor with little recollection of what came before the impact. A sensory experience that words seem to fail, Sodom constructs a hell using found footage from gay porn and manipulations of the filmstrip itself. Holes are punched into the celluloid then filled with other layers of imagery. The inserts seemingly floating down the screen independent of the strip descending through the projector.
Between Anker’s program and the collection of films made by artist Joseph Bernard, who is best known for his collage paintings, the amount of 8mm being projected was a treat of the highest dulcitude (a special kudos goes to Daïchi Saïto for handling projectionist duties). Bernard wears his filmic influences on his sleeve, explicitly stating them in the title of Semblance: Frampton Brakhage Relation (1981) and with the inclusion of photos of Brakhage and Maya Deren in Chamber (1977). However, the filmmaker he seems to have the most affinity with is Jeff Keen from the UK. The work of both men is frenetic, occasionally to the point of visual overload. They draw on collage, making use of anything they can get their hands on: photographs, magazine pages, film strips, rulers, protractors, etc. Exuberance arises from the simple act of creation; a joy found in the work of hobbyists. Hopefully the display of Bernard’s work at Ann Arbor, and its availability online, is a sign of a reemergence of something that’s been hidden away for far too long.
Standouts from the rest of the festival included Richard Tuohy’s dual projection Dot Matrix (2013) and The Dark, Krystle (2013) from Michael Robinson. Like Paul Sharits with Apparent Motion (1975), Tuohy uses the interplay of static images to manufacture the illusion of movement. Where Sharits used the grain found in celluloid, Tuohy created rayographs of fields of dots and overlaps them during projection, conjuring a spectacle that would make the early practitioners of the art proud. Robinson’s condensing of TV’s Dynasty (1981-1989) is serviced well by seeing it with an audience amused by his focus on the soap opera’s reliance on certain stylistic tics. We’re given a stream of dramatic gestures: push-ins by the camera, the way one character turns her body suddenly, and another’s penchant for wielding a variety of glasses filled with alcohol. The audience is invited to laugh as we see a movement repeated ad nauseum. It’s an appropriate response but eventually shades things from ridiculous to utterly terrifying. In narratives, we’re asked to believe that the people we see onscreen are living, breathing characters, that we should be become familiar and intimate with them, to become concerned with their lives. The women in The Dark, Krystle are betrayed by the world they occupy, trapped, forever doomed to repeat mistakes. For misfortune to follow them always. While one character embraces her station and finds solace in the bottle, the other is terrified by what she experiences. She desperately searches for a way out, futilely trying to extinguish the flames that surround her. By emphasizing the absurdity of the construction, Robinson succeeds in what every person working in narrative hopes to accomplish: we view these women as people and connect with them.
At 45 minutes (give or take), Thom Andersen’s meandering introduction to Edwaerd Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975) lasted nearly as long as the film itself. His recollections drifted from the production of the film and those involved in it, Muybridge, and what was happening in his personal life at the time. It felt more like listening to an uncle during a holiday gathering than a standard intro, and encapsulates how the Ann Arbor Film Festival manages to balance everything expected from a festival experience with the casual air of watching movies among friends and family. It’s a unique mixture that executive director Leslie Raymond hopes the workshop & presentation portion of the festival, “Expanding Frames”—with its focus on creating a dialogue between filmmakers, critics, educators, and the general public—will strengthen. Based on the evidence this year, it’s a hope that has every possibility to come true.