The pointless dreams of husband and wife team Jason and Tori Tomalia came true in mid-December as their Pointless Brewery & Theatre opened on Packard in Ann Arbor. The idea that had been brewing for over a decade came to fruition after Tori was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and they were asking themselves what the point of everything was.
The answer: sketch comedy and beer.
The brewery and theater offers a delightful combination of improv and craft beer made by the owner, and from my experience both were worth the ticket. The sketch comedy is provided by three different improv groups each night, including their resident group — The League of Pointless Improvisers. It is definitely more of a bar in a theater than a theater in a bar, as the long-form improv performances are the focus. The small space may have a small stage and a small bar but it has a giant heart – which creates a welcoming and relaxed environment for theater-goers. Owner and brewer Jason Tomalia is quick to tell you that if you feel like grabbing a beer or one of their made-in-Michigan snacks in the middle of the show, go right ahead.
Amanda Schott is a Library Technician at AADL and sometimes snorts when she laughs at improv comedy.
Improv Shows are Fridays at 8 pm, and Saturdays at 8 pm and 10:30 pm. For the kids there’s Little Peeps every Saturday morning at 10:30 am. It is part performance, part drama activities, and part crafts. And Sundays at 7 pm is open stage night where you can sign up to show off your own talents such as music, improv, poetry, etc. The theater also offers improv classes on site.
Midway through Mittenfest X’s opening night on Tuesday, December 29 at Bona Sera Café, singer-songwriter Fred Thomas asked how many of the evening’s attendees had also been present for the original Mittenfest nine years ago. Those who raised their hands were in the minority (this writer not among them, although he has been present for several Mittenfests since). But the number of original Mittenfest attendees was significant, and it contributed to a remarkable sense of reunion as Mittenfest kicked off for the year.
Of course, the annual music festival and fundraiser for 826michigan always feels like something of a reunion in the first place. Year after year, it’s become the biggest annual gathering of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti bands (Ypsi’s wild and woolly Totally Awesome Fest is also a local band extravaganza, but the underground nature of that house-show-based event makes it smaller by necessity). This year’s Mittenfest featured 35 local bands before it wrapped up on January 2. Attendees of the original Mittenfest may have been a significant minority in Tuesday’s audience, but not onstage: opening night for Mittenfest X exclusively featured artists who also played Mittenfest’s inaugural one-day event in 2006.
And in so doing, it was difficult not to observe just how far some of them have come in the intervening near-decade. Thomas, a longtime Ypsi and Ann Arbor resident who recently moved to Montreal, called attention to that evolution most blatantly by repeating the exact same set he performed at the original Mittenfest. Thomas’ music has become both musically and lyrically more complex since 2006, as is clearly evident on his excellent recent release “All Are Saved,” but he took the stage alone with a single acoustic guitar. Although Thomas has certainly improved with age, the old stuff still worked and many in the audience sang along fervently.
Several of the bands who returned to perform Tuesday night have grown their ranks–and their fanbases–considerably since the original Mittenfest. Ypsilanti folksinger Misty Lyn Bergeron, who played the original event simply as “Misty Lyn” with three accompanying musicians, appeared with her four-piece band The Big Beautiful. A 2006 826michigan blog post about the first Mittenfest noted that the “up-and-coming” Detroit “bluegrass” trio Frontier Ruckus “blew everyone away”; that group returned to Mittenfest X as a nationally recognized quartet whose sound has expanded far beyond basic bluegrass. Ypsilanti songwriter Matt Jones has made perhaps the most dramatic transformation since his first Mittenfest, when he performed with just violinist Carol Gray and cellist Colette Alexander. Gray and Alexander are now part of Jones’ seven-piece ensemble, The Reconstruction, which performed tunes from their lushly orchestrated, critically acclaimed 2014 album “The Deep Enders.”
If one particular element stood out Tuesday night among all the diverse groups who performed, it was incredibly disciplined musicianship. Ypsi expat Emily Jane Powers found a tight groove with backing musicians Alec Jensen, Eric Brummitt, and Christopher Gilbert, jamming on some lively instrumental breakdowns that required rather nimble work from the entire group. Jones, Gray, and Bergeron’s voices intertwined gorgeously as always in varying configurations with The Reconstruction and The Big Beautiful. And Frontier Ruckus proved just how well their group has jelled since the early days, with David Jones pulling off some particularly graceful banjo solos while Zach Nichols juggled a trumpet, melodica, euphonium, and musical saw.
The evening was not without its hitches. Powers blanked on the words to one of her songs, a Mittenfest banner fell down on Jones while he was drumming with Ypsi band Loose Teeth, and Bergeron was confined to a chair throughout her performance due to her ongoing recovery from a car accident. But personality and professionalism shone through. Powers picked up her tune, Jones grinned while keeping the beat with rope and pennants draped across his wrists, and Bergeron came across as strongly as ever.
Overall, there was a sense of quiet triumph to the night, a sense of modest celebration of how far all of these performers have come since they got Mittenfest started nine years ago. Mittenfest celebrates Michigan-made music–and when you look at the 28 bands performing over four days, the scope and talent of the local scene is remarkable. Of the 19 newcomers among this year’s lineup, it’s intriguing to wonder who might be present for a reunion show at Mittenfest XX–and just how far those groups might have come by that point. If anyone asks that year how many audience members were present for Mittenfest X, this writer will be proud to raise his hand.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
Intimate relationships are complicated, contradictory, and baffling.
Company is a musically and lyrically intense exploration of love and marriage, at times rueful, funny, bitter and hopeful. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, is musically challenging, lyrically intricate, and emotionally draining. The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre has taken on the challenge with an outstanding ensemble who seem to relish the rich variety and tonal changes of Sondheim's music.
Director Rachel Francisco notes in the program that the play has an odd structure. The center of attention is Bobby, an aging man-about-town who has reached his 35th birthday without settling into a serious relationship. He is surrounded by married friends who both envy and worry about him. Bobby visits these couples and struggles with who he is and who he is supposed to be. Francisco notes that the action seems to play out in Bobby's head, a meditation on life, ending with a desperate affirmation.
Company is well named as the play provides spotlight moments for many in the cast, each song keying in on some aspect of love and marriage. Francisco and musical director Jennifer Goltz keep it fluid, moving easily from moments of slapstick humor to quiet introspection. Sondheim draws on jazz, the blues, and musical theater models. His multi-voiced settings, complex lyrics at breakneck speed, and his shifts in style are a challenge. Goltz gets the best from the singers and leads a small combo in a solid musical accompaniment.
At the center is Robby Griswold as Bobby. He is our guide through this mid-life crisis. He is charming, boyish, but also visibly aching for something else...or is he? Griswold is the glue that binds everything with his nuanced performance and his rich, intelligent singing. He wonders about the limits of intimacy in the reflective "Marry Me a Little." His rendition of "Being Alive" is strong, sad but triumphant.
But, of course, Bobby is not alone. He is surrounded and sometimes smothered by the affection of his friends.
Harry and Sarah seem happily married, even as they engage in a little karate. Jodi-Renee Giron's Sarah is tough and funny. Harry may not be all that happy as he sings "Sorry-Grateful," one of the most mature reflections on marriage. Paul Clark as Harry has a strong voice that captures the rueful mood.
Marta, a bohemian girl, is one of three people with whom Bobby has off-and-on relations. Kate Papachristou has a voice that seems to rise above the others. Her Marta offers one explanation for Bobby's reluctance to get involved, the teeming, stimulating, maddening city of New York, in the frantic song, "Another Hundred People."
Another frantic song is from a bride in panic as the ceremony nears. Marci Rosenberg is hilarious as Amy, a woman in a longterm lesbian relationship who feels too much pressure to get married. Sondheim's "Getting Married Today," is a rapid fire musical stand-up routine that Rosenberg blazes through, while flailing across the stage hilariously. Her sweet-tempered, kind intended, Paula, is well played by Amanda Bynum.
April is another of Bobby's tentative love relationships. She's a stewardess, more noted for her beauty than her intellect, a definite bad mark from Bobby's female friends. Kimberly Elliott is funny and a little goofy as April and she and Griswold do a nice comic duet on "Barcelona".
A knock-out moment in Company is always Joanne's bitter observations on "The Ladies Who Lunch." Joanne and her third husband are a bit older than the crowd. As played by Amy Bogetto-Weinraub, she is a bit of a cougar, always on the hunt but more than a little sad about her situation. Her performance on "The Ladies" builds slowly to a savage, emotionally draining declaration that is more about self-loathing than gossip.
Others of note are Trisha Fountain as the square Jenny, Chris Joseph as the bisexual Bobby's sometimes boyfriend Kevin, and in the musical quartet, Greg Simon on trumpet and flugel.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Company continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Arthur Miller.Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's website, by calling the A2CT office at 734-971-2228, or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting the theater's website.
Once upon a time, an aspiring writer/filmmaker named R.J. Fox traveled to Hollywood, California to attend a series of screenwriting workshops. During a cold and rainy day off, he decided to visit Universal Studios. And that was where he first met Katya from Ukraine. They became pen pals and several months later—on a whim and without telling another living soul—he purchased an engagement ring and traveled halfway around the world to propose. Fox’s adventures in Ukraine are documented in his new book Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.
This humorous, poignant, and memorable expedition centered on life in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine—the former center of Cold War Soviet missile production and a city that, until the mid-1980s, was closed to foreign visitors—is punctuated by a colorful cast of characters, adventures, and cultural mishaps and misunderstandings, from irate babushka women to hard-drinking uncles. He talks about the experience in more detail and reads from his book in his December appearance on Michigan Radio’s Stateside with Cynthia Canty.
As Ann Arbor native Davy Rothbart, author of My Heart is an Idiot and founder of FOUND Magazine , says, "Love & Vodka is an honest, funny, and deeply heartfelt story about a young man who drops everything to pursue an epic romance. If you’ve ever done something crazy in the name of love, R.J. Fox’s adventures in Ukraine will strike a chord. This book is a delight!”
Fox, currently an English and media teacher at Huron High School, is also the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, and fifteen feature-length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood.
On Monday, January 11 at 6:30 pm, Fox will teach a memoir-writing workshop at the Downtown Library, where participants can learn to mold their own stories using topics like story structure, dialogue, character development/arc, and how to infuse your writing with literary elements traditionally associated with fiction. Participants will apply the skills taught during the workshop through various prompts and activities designed to spark creativity, with the aim of mining material that can later be developed into various forms of memoir and creative non-fiction, from short essays to long-form works. Copies of Love & Vodka will be available for purchase and signing.
Patty Smith is a desk clerk at the Ann Arbor District Library.
R.J. Fox's talk, Memoir Writing:Turning Your Life into Art (Or is it the Other Way Around?) will be presented in the Multi-Purpose Room in the Lower Level of the Downtown Library at 343 S. Fifth Avenue on Monday, January 11 from 6:30-8:30 pm.
Ann Arbor Civic Theater will open the New Year with a sparkling new production of the beloved musical Company, which is, according to its seasoned AACT director Rachel Francisco, “about relationships…interactions between spouses and the deep feelings that underlie many marriages.”
The plot centers on Bobby (Robby Griswold), who on the eve of his 35th birthday, questions his bachelor status. Married friends surround him, full of advice about relationships. But is marriage the best option? Will it lead to happiness? His current and former lovers (Kimmy Elliott, Chris Joseph, and Kate Papachristou) make his choice even more difficult.
When Company opened in 1970, it was a landmark in Broadway musical history. A “concept” musical composed of short vignettes, it was the first collaboration between two theater legends: composer Stephen Sondheim and director/producer Hal Prince.
Nominated for 14 Tony Awards, the production won six, including Best Musical. Sondheim’s music for the show (including “Being Alive,” “Another Hundred People,” and the Elaine Stritch showstopper “Ladies Who Lunch”) was sublime. New York Times critic Vincent Canby, reviewing the 1995 Broadway revival, raved that Company contained the most “dazzling and bittersweet show tunes Mr. Sondheim has ever written.”
Jennifer Goltz is the Music Director for this first show of the 2016 year and choreography is by Rachel Francisco and Emily Olson.
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Company runs Thursday through Sunday, January 7 - 10 at the University of Michigan’s Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at Ann Arbor Civic Theater's website, by calling the A2CT office at 734-971-2228, or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting the theater's website.
Two weeks ago, the long-awaited Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, hit theaters like a ton of space-bricks. Hordes of people of all different ages, all kinds of backgrounds, and varying levels of nerdiness flooded theaters on December 17th to see what this latest installment had to offer. They showed up to theaters two hours before the movie. They stood in lines that stretched out the door, around the corner, and possibly into the street. They ate popcorn by the bucketful and shouted over each other to answer the theater staff’s trivia questions and win free movie tickets (most likely for return trips to see this exact same movie). And, lucky me, I was one of the many, standing in line at 9 pm with my ticket in hand, waiting for the theater doors to open. There was really only one thing separating me from the eager crowd of fans humming with excitement around me:
I had never in my life seen a Star Wars movie.
I know. Suddenly my “space-bricks” comment makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? I know exactly zero things about Star Wars, so for all I know space-bricks are totally relevant to this fandom.
I am fully aware that every person in the world has seen Star Wars. I’m pretty sure they screen it for newborn babies in the maternity wards at hospitals. It’s been around for almost 40 years, but somehow I had managed to stumble through life without ever seeing it. I never accidentally watched one while at a friend's house or in a waiting room or settled on one while flipping through channels—you know, back in 2008 when people still had cable.
So when the new movie came out, and friends invited me along, I decided, “Yeah, ok. That could work. How important is it REALLY to have seen the other movies? I mean, I know stuff about Star Wars.”
This line of thinking was pure folly. A group of Star Wars-loving co-workers showed me just how wrong I was with an informal, pre-movie interview. Here are the things I “knew” about Star Wars before seeing the movie - spoilers ahead, but only for people as Star Wars-sheltered as me:
[begin embarrassing transcript]
So, what are you pretty sure you already know about Star Wars?
Luke and Darth Vader are related.
They sometimes fly around in ships and shoot at things, like giant desert rats.
One of the planets is, like, a desert planet.
Han Solo shot first. The internet was pretty adamant about that one.
Yoda talks funny and is green and small and…him and Luke were buds?
Jar Jar Binks is a gold robot. No, wait, he's the guy with the weird face!
There's a scene where there's deserts! Or planets.
Ok, what do you know about the general plot of Star Wars? Give us a summary.
Luke Skywalker is the Chosen One of some kind. He lives on a planet that is not Earth and fights some dudes. Not really sure about his motivation. He hangs out with Yoda and Han Solo and they teach him how to use a lightsaber. He goes to fight Darth Vader because no one likes that guy. They go to the Death Star, which is round and has a dent in it. Darth Vader wants to kill him for... reasons? Then there are storm troopers and they wear white and there are other kinds of storm troopers that look similar but are different. And they fight them? And they win? And Darth Vader dies? But first he says "Luke, I am your father." And that's all I know.
Who is Jabba the Hutt?
He's a fat guy who has Leia in a gold bikini. I know that because of Friends. Wait, is that guy blue?
What do you know about Boba Fett?
I don't remember. Is he an alien? He's not a person. Not as crazy looking as Jar Jar Binks. Is he a robot?
What about Obi-Wan Kenobi?
I used to think Harrison Ford was Obi-Wan Kenobi. But actually, he's Han Solo. I just assume they are both Harrison Ford.
How do you think the ewoks enter into this?
Oh. Yeah. Is Chewbacca an ewok? They are some sort of space animal…that are either Chewbacca or…I'm imagining them smaller? Like the footstool in Beauty and the Beast. You know that little dog?
Who is Anakin Skywalker?
That one I know! That guy is Darth Vader. He was a nice guy once and then his face got jacked up. So under his mask he has a jacked up face. What's his motivation? What's that guy up to? Is he trying to take over the universe? People are always trying to do that.
Who's the Emperor?
Is that different than Darth Vader?
Who is Lando Calrissian?
He is from across the Narrow Sea and has dragons and wants the Iron Throne?
Who does Natalie Portman play?
She was Princess Leia, right?
Really!? Wow. I was like 80% sure she was Princess Leia.
What is the Force?
It's like chi? Energy. You use it for... fighting? With lightsabers? You should use it. I know you use it. And also that sometimes it is with you. Can it be good or bad? I think it's good.
What's a Jedi?
Oh, a Jedi is like an auror in Harry Potter. They fight crime and stuff and they wear brown robes. Also like Harry Potter! Wait, lightsaber color is important. I don't know why I know that. Do they have different powers? Do people have powers in this movie? Um, I know Jedis can return. They went somewhere and came back. Is Jedi plural? I think it's a job.
[end embarrassing transcript]
Yup. So, clearly I was starting on a solid foundation of very correct facts. I’m pretty sure by the end of the conversation, I was just directly quoting from movie titles. I am still not totally sure how wrong my information was, but I could kind of gauge it by how horrified my co-workers looked after each answer.
And so, armed with all of this very factual knowledge, I went to see the seventh Star Wars movie. I waited in line for two hours with a horde of die-hard Star Wars fans wearing quippy t-shirts. Some were dressed up as That One Character Who Wears Gray, or That Person With the Brown Clothes, or Princess Leia (nailed it). And lots of them were toting around what I thought at the time was some kind of zany orange and white space-hat (but was apparently a robot called BB-8). I watched my Star Wars-obsessed friends answer trivia questions and yell at a guy who dared to wear a shirt with a Star Trek font. I ate two pretzels.
And then it was finally time for the movie. We flooded into the theater, the lights went out, and the magic began.
Considering that I barely knew who anyone was or what was going on, the movie kept me completely hooked from beginning to end--aside from a very brief couple of seconds when I fell asleep because, well, it was almost midnight and I was basically full of pretzel cheese.
I thought the movie was funny, exciting, and incredibly realistic for a space opera. Spaceship chases? Yes, please! Lightsaber fights? Bring 'em on! But there were also real feelings, real relationships, and real stakes in this movie. Who'd have thought?
The main characters were just impossible not to root for. Finn, the stormtrooper who's been trained to kill for the dark side, but decides run off and fight for the Resistance; Rey, the clever, solitary junkyard girl who accidentally gets swept into this epic battle between good and evil; and BB-8, the world's most adorable space-hat, who is being hunted by the Republic.
Now, I'm not sure if a stormtrooper turning his back on the dark side and running away to fight for good is something that has ever happened in the Star Wars universe. If I'm honest, before Finn pulled off his helmet in the movie I didn't even realize stormtroopers were people. If I'm really, really honest, I didn't even know stormtrooper was one word. But the revelation that stormtroopers could have feelings and weren't all just soulless killing robots felt like a pretty new and exciting leap in character development to me--and a pretty cool introduction to the universe. All my preconceived notions, few though they were, were just blown to bits and suddenly it felt like anything could happen. If stormtroopers could be good maybe C-3PO would pull off his face to reveal that he's the Emperor. The possibilities were endless!
Rey was a joy to watch as she went from impoverished junkyard scavenger to lightsaber-wielding, butt-kicking fighter for the Resistance, and her chemistry and banter with Han Solo was so much fun. Kylo Ren, with his motivations and backstory left intentionally foggy, managed to seem well-rounded, and the relationships that were hinted at gave his character some great depth. As far as I can tell, Star Wars isn't known for making two-dimensional villains, and they certainly haven't started with Kylo Ren.
These allusions to histories and relationships between the movie's characters felt like completely new revelations, not old references that I just wasn't getting. But it was interesting how easy it was to pick up on the things that were old inside jokes. I didn't get any of them, of course, but I could tell when some classic Star Wars thing had happened because suddenly the camera would pan around to a nondescript, decrepit spaceship and everyone would start screaming and cheering. Or Han Solo would stop and say something completely unremarkable and the entire theater would explode into laughter and applause.
The combination of old references and new information made something incredibly clear, though. While I could probably say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good movie--I enjoyed seeing it and only fell asleep the one time--it would be impossible for me to say just how good it was without having seen the other beloved (and less-beloved) films in the series. Are these ideas, these characters, these plot lines original and revolutionary and surprising, or are they overdone tropes? Are they carefully planned and well-thought-out tie-ins to plot lines from the previous movies or have they kicked the old plot lines to the curb? Is this the continuation of one great big, epic story or an entirely new story with some familiar faces tacked on?
On a great big list of "Things I Don't Know About Star Wars," these questions have all risen to the top. Right below the biggest question of all: Was Star Wars: The Force Awakens really a good movie?
I think so. But I can't know for sure until I've seen the rest. And so, with the next movie in the franchise looming on the horizon, it might be time to give in to the gravitational pull of the Star Wars universe and just…watch the movies already.
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and if she had to rename The Force Awakens, she would call it Star Wars: Stormtroopers Have Feelings Too. Or maybe, Star Wars: Everyone In Space Has Daddy Issues.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in theaters everywhere, all the time.
From the article:
"With so much local talent making waves from the internet to Hollywood, Ann Arbor's comics and graphic novels scene—no matter how well connected the artists are with one another—is having a big impact on comics fans, both locally and around the world."
AADL has been happy to work with some of the artists on projects like making Ottaviani's titles available in our Downloads collection, or Drozd's Nerd Nite talk on 1980s cartoons or his Comics Are Great! video podcast series.
So check out the article, and discover a new appreciation for your local comics artists!
On December 11th the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra celebrated the Christmas season with their 4th annual Holiday Pops performance. Combining music, song, and some audience-provided sound effects, the show captured all the best things about the holidays: cheer, togetherness, and good music.
I went in expecting the good music, so I wasn’t surprised when they started with some classic wintery waltzes, ballet pieces, and a host of other refined orchestral numbers that made me feel like I should have worn fancier clothes. It was beautiful and stirring and, after getting over the amazing sight of the instruments at work, I listened to most of it with my eyes closed. But I was pleasantly surprised a few songs in when the show revealed itself for what it really was—pure holiday ridiculousness in a fancy suit.
The conductor took a break from his straight-laced conducting for some charming holiday banter, ironically reminding the audience to go out and play in the snow and to see the heart-warming holiday film “Krampus.” Then he and the orchestra launched into a second wave of pieces that were just as beautiful, but far jollier. One song that perfectly combined the feeling of sophisticated symphony with festive silliness was the “Champagne Gallop,” an upbeat piece that included regular pauses for an exuberant “pop!” sound, mimicking the popping of a champagne cork. Technically, this sound was supposed to be made by the percussion section—but what fun would that be? Instead, the conductor asked the audience to create the popping sound themselves with the trusty finger-in-the-mouth trick. Suddenly, a song that would have been a pretty good time all by itself was made even better by the hilarious sound of 500 audience members making popping noises every time the conductor waved his hand in our direction. It was, in a way, like being a part of the orchestra—if there was a section of the orchestra designated to ridiculous sounds you can make with your mouth.
But generally speaking, there is not. I checked.
Partway through the program, the orchestra opened its doors and ushered in a flood of choirs: the Boychoir of Ann Arbor, Measure for Measure, the Skyline High School Choir, the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale, and the Greenhills Choir. The orchestra’s performance was made all the more buoyant by the addition of song as each choir took its turn and, finally, joined the audience for a good, old-fashioned holiday sing-along. As the evening ended with the audience belting out verses of "Jingle Bells," "O Christmas Tree," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," the performance went through one last transformation, taking on the feel of a fun and cozy family get-together—complete with cheerful, off-key singing in my ear and children kicking the back of my seat.
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian and she actually has no idea how to make that finger-in-the-mouth popping sound.
The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's next big event will be their Mozart Birthday Bash at the Michigan Theatre on January 16th. Tickets are available online from their website.
I’ve been waiting a few years now for the day that the 1990s are far enough behind us that we can start to look at that decade and the art that came out of it with a more objective eye, and the Come As You Are installation at UMMA seems to imply that perhaps that day is finally here!
The best thing about the installation, located in a large exhibit space on the second floor of the museum, is the diversity of mediums that comprise it. Paintings, sculptures, film, photographs, and large-scale multimedia installations are all represented. And, despite the bright colors, sounds, and even quick movement (!) of some of the pieces, they all come together to create an unusual sense of peace in the room… with a distinctive ‘90s aura.
Upon entering, viewers are directed to turn to their left (although I am sure many will be distracted, as I was, by a piece to the right featuring an office chair spinning at seemingly impossible speeds). The decade is broken into three segments for purposes of organization of the installation, beginning with 1989-1993, a time when the United States was rampant with debates about multiculturalism, race, and the “American identity,” and when issues of gay rights and feminism were just beginning to be truly discussed in the public sphere. As the introduction to the exhibit points out, it was dramatic political and social events that pushed these issues to the forefront of the media in the early 1990s: the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court decision, the Los Angeles race riots and Rodney King beating, and the continued AIDS crisis. The art pieces from these years reflect these issues well. "Synecdoche", by artist Byron Kim, is a grid of monochrome painted panels that doesn’t necessarily catch the eye at first. I was fascinated to read, however, that each panel represents exactly—or at least as close as Kim could get to—the skin tone of an individual that Kim invited to “sit” for a portrait. With “synecdoche” referring to a part that stands for a whole, Kim’s piece makes a simple, yet interesting commentary on a racially diverse society.
Prior to this, however, is a case of Rolling Rock bottles enclosed in bright orange plexiglass—a remnant from one of the performative installations of 1991 by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who invited people to sit and share drinks and a meal together while discussing issues of the day. Other moving pieces from the early 1990s include a velvet couch embroidered with the words of a suicide note left by a single immigrant mother to her daughter, and two enormous dresses with unnaturally long arms—a piece entitled "Famous Twins", by Beverly Semmes, that comments on skewed perceptions of the female body image. I didn’t quite “get” "Lick and Lather", by Janine Antoni, which features two self-portrait busts of the artist, one of soap and one of chocolate, but was absolutely fascinated—and somewhat horrified—to find out that Antoni formed them by licking away the chocolate and lathering away the soap.
The mid-1990s mark the advent of the digital age, and the art in this portion of Come As You Are does, too. Digital photographs and several short films make up most of the art in this section. For one of the films, viewers actually step behind a dark velvet curtain for an enclosed viewing experience, a sharp contrast from wandering through the bright white rooms that house the rest of the pieces.
In the late 1990s, the focus of the art divides somewhat. About half of the pieces make statements on American cultural stereotypes in the latter portion of the decade, while others turn outward and focus on globalization and America’s role in the global economy. Nikki S. Lee has a series of self-portrait photographs on display, in which she portrays women who “typify” late-1990s American culture: a punk rocker, a Latina woman on a sunny city street, and a woman in an Ohio trailer near a confederate flag enacting a “white trash” stereotype. Nearby, Jeanne Dunning brilliantly contrasts a close-up photograph of a skinned tomato with an adjacent photograph of a mischievously-smiling woman, tomato juice running out of her mouth, inviting viewers to contemplate how women are often portrayed sexually in art—and that when a piece of art portrays a woman, it’s difficult to not see sexual undertones, even when none are intended.
Concluding the room are two vastly different pieces: the first simply a television screen with a screenshot of an actual Ebay auction from 2001: that of “Keith Obadike’s Blackness,” which will allow the purchaser to “gain access to ‘high risk’ neighborhoods” and acquire the ability of “instilling fear.” The second and final piece is a large, room-sized multimedia installation entitled "Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of San Francisco (Chinatown Division)". Artist Mark Dion and his team actually researched and identified both the biological and geographical origins of the fish sold on a given day in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1997, a perfect sort of microcosm of the global economy. The art installation looks like a laboratory, with fish samples, files, and notes scattered about. This is the first time the piece has been exhibited since the year it was created.
I might be a little biased because I’m fascinated by the political and social events and the unique culture of the 1990s, but I found Come As You Are to be a particularly interesting, thoughtful, and special exhibition of art. As the first major museum installation showcasing the art of the decade, it really is a must see—even for those who remember the ‘90s less fondly than I do.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: Come As You Are will run through January 31, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am-5 pm; and Sunday 12-5 pm For information, call 734-764-0395.
The holiday season means different things to different people. To my sister and I growing up, it meant it was time to pull out the Christmas special VHS, which contained A Chipmunk Christmas, The Smurfs' Christmas Special, and, my personal favorite, He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special. We didn't love them for their holiday messages, because frankly, they all fail to have a cohesive or believable plot. I think we loved them just because they were part of the season and also because my mom forgot to pause recording on the commercials, which meant re-watching holiday ads that got weirder and more dated with each viewing. Anybody else remember ice-skating Ronald McDonald? It just goes to show that movies made for Christmas can sometimes, you know, suck.
As more and more people each year identify Die Hard as their favorite holiday movie, I asked my fellow co-workers and Pulp contributors to share their favorite non-holiday holiday movies. Please enjoy this list of movies in which Christmas happens but isn't why the film exists in the first place.
Evelyn recommends Nick Offerman's Yule Log, the lowest-key of seasonal viewing experiences, featuring no action, no dialogue, and just the crackle of a fire and the enjoyment of a fine Scotch to admire.
Sara suggests The Thin Man - come for the martinis and mystery, stay for Nick shooting balloons off the Christmas tree with his new airgun and Nora's Christmas threat:
Amy, our classic film buff, suggests The Apartment, Meet Me in St. Louis, and The Lemon Drop Kid, in which a small time crook played by Bob Hope attempts to pay off an angry mobster with a bell-ringing Santa donation racket. This film also featured the debut of the holiday standard "Silver Bells."
Anne has some recommendations that celebrate the 80s and early 90s at their cinematic best. First up is Gremlins, which you should definitely watch if you are tired of Christmas carols:
And then there's Batman Returns, featuring this moment, which has Christmas lights, Santa references, and gifts being hurled through the air. Tim Burton must have had a thing for incorporating Christmas settings (Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas) into his movies.
Oh wait, I almost forgot about this guy:
But my favorite of her suggestions has to be Trading Places, complete with Dan Ackroyd's filthy Santa suit.
Andrew's picks included L.A. Confidential, because what says "holiday spirit" better than a prison beatdown scene, and Holiday Inn, because Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby singing and dancing to Christmas tunes to impress a girl really does say "holiday spirit".
So from all of us on the Pulp team here at AADL, we wish you very happy movie-watching, from our couches to yours!
Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at AADL and would like to note that Auntie Mame also features a very sweet and touching Christmas scene amid the zaniness and camp that makes up the rest of the film.