As a former longtime resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was pleasantly surprised to see its treasured annual film festival enter the home video market, debuting with a 10-film collection of highlights from the 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival (held this past March) subtitled DVD Collection Volume 1 - Time Pieces. Similar in format to DVD compilations like the International Tournee of Animation, it's an entertaining, thought-provoking, and visually and aurally intriguing jumble of films, many featuring animation of one sort or another. Unlike other animation compilations, however, these lean toward non-narrative experimental films, though uninitiated audiences will be surprised at just how entertaining most of these short films are.
The festival is one of the oldest in North America, and because for years it accepted only 16mm films it was an important outlet for experimental filmmakers, budding animators, and aspiring directors and cinematographers who used the format as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Over the years, many famous or soon-to-be famous filmmakers submitted their work: Gus Van Sant, Agnes Varda, Kenneth Anger, George Lucas, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol. Michigan-born Michael Moore and University of Michigan-educated Lawrence Kasdan sit on its board.
For years the festival has been held in the now beautifully restored Michigan Theater, a mid-sized movie palace, though the festival was just as fun when the theater was falling apart - as a teenager I liked to sit in the balcony and drop bits of chipped-off plaster on unsuspecting patrons in the orchestra seats. Speaking of the balcony, one year during the festival a teenager wandered around the lobby, looking perplexed by the many doors leading into the auditorium. Sheepishly, he finally asked me and the theater's longtime (Barton) theater organist, Henry Aldridge, "Which theater is the movie in?" When we explained there was only one theater, that every door leads to the same place, and that he could even sit in the balcony if he wanted, he darted up the stairs, confused but intrigued.
Being a politically liberal university town, the festival and its staff were very casual Bohemian types, and yet very organized at the same time. For several years I covered the festival for The Ann Arbor News, and would go and preview the films in the back of Vicki Honeyman's hair salon. Audiences for these festivals were lively; they'd loudly boo overly-pretentious crap though were equally excited when a genuinely innovative work would come along. You could really feel the palpable excitement in the auditorium when something truly special unspooled. The lobby area, between films or when you just needed a break, was crammed with artful decorations, installation art, and places where you could sit down and create your own animation, taking magic markers or pins or whatnot to a big reel of blank 16mm film that would be projected at the end of the festival.
And then there were the films themselves. There are some short films I saw only once, decades ago, but they're still burned into my consciousness. For instance, one jaw-dropping work from the Vietnam era (screened again for an anniversary program around 1993) is a straightforward film documenting a young man as he prepares - and finally succeeds - in shooting himself in the foot so he won't have to go to war. On a more frivolous note I've never been able to get Les Blank and Maureen Gosling's Yum, Yum, Yum!, a short film about Cajun cooking, out of my head, 18 years after seeing it once.
The closest thing to a documentary here is Portrait #2: Trojan, Vanessa Renwick's film about a Rainier, Oregon nuclear power plant. Those unfamiliar with its story will be surprised by the film's ending.
Of the ten films, which run between two and 22 minutes, I was most taken with Michael Langan's Doxology, a humorous, surrealist work with swirling carrots, orbiting tennis balls and twirling landscapes, that plays like Computer Age Jan Švankmajer. Kelly Sears' allegorical The Drift is also fascinating. Using manipulated NASA and '60s Americana imagery, it tells a Quatermass-type tale of astronauts who bring back a kind of virus that takes the form of a hypnotic song which causes its listeners to drift in a frozen complacency.
Like many films in this collection, Mike Brune's The Adventure is better seen than described, its mood and pacing difficult to convey in a brief description. Suffice to say it follows an average, slightly boorish upper middle class couple on a picnic, driving through an isolated park in his Cadillac. They encounter a strange mime and aren't sure if what he's up to is some kind of performance art - or is it something else? Both funny and genuinely unsettling, it's an hypnotic original work.
Thorsten Fleisch's Energie! is equally, undeniably original. Apparently he animated sheets of photo paper that had been subjected to large shocks of electricity. The black and white film is a stark electric show that make Kenneth Strickfaden's electrical apparatuses seem downright puny by comparison. Wanna scare your friends? Put this on and they'll think your TV's about to explode.
Other films made less of an impression: Robert Todd's Office Suite struck me as little more than a long series of out-of-focus and rack-focus of shapes and patterns in an office (though a strip of 16mm film is visible in one shot, so maybe it's an editing room?) One man's meat is another man's poison, but the audience here in Kyoto let out a collective "Huh?" when it was over.
Video & Audio
The ten films are all adequately transferred, though the macro- and microphotography of John Campbell's interesting Li: The Patterns of Nature pushes the digital authoring to the brink; on big TVs some artifacting is apparent. The films jump around format wise: some are 16:9 enhanced widescreen, some are 1.37:1 full frame, and at least on appears to be 4:3 letterboxed. (It's hard to tell on the more abstract titles.) The sometimes stereo audio is likewise fairly good. The DVD is region-free.
There's a lot of miscellanea, not noted anywhere in the packaging. Of varying interest it consists of:
Doxology: Experiments (deleted scenes)
Frog Jesus: Revelations (behind-the-scenes anecdote)
Notes from an (Energie) Addict (behind-the-scenes mini-film)
Convection (an Installation) (video of an installation art display)
Adventures in Auditioning (audition footage from The Adventure)
Peter's Proletariat Pigs (acknowledgements film to AAFF sponsors)
46th Ann Arbor Film Festival Trailer
This is a very worthwhile collection of short films, a must for anyone seriously interested in animation, experimental and surrealist cinema. Thanks to the folks at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, these films have a new venue that facilitates a wider audience than they'd otherwise have (while generating some revenue for the filmmakers) and audiences who can't make it to the festival now have a means of seeing some of the best entries. Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.