OK, so, H.M.S. Pinafore means a lot to me. I was into theater a bunch when I was a kid, and as a sophomore in high school in Overland Park, Kansas, I found myself in the role of Ralph Rackstraw, and found my crush in the role of Josephine. Or maybe she became my crush because she was in the role of Josephine. The 80s are a little blurry these days, but I definitely remember singing Twist & Shout on a parade float. Suffice it to say, this show gives me the FEELS, and I know it like the back of my hand.
So, naturally, I approach many modern stagings of H.M.S. Pinafore with a bit of trepidation. I love the of-the-momentness of Gilbert & Sullivan, and that moment was not the Roaring 20s, or the South Pacific circa 1943, or on the bridge of a Starship, or any such nonsense. I get it, the temptation of a stunty slant on such an endlessly reheated work can be irresistible for cast and crew alike, but I'm in the audience, damme, and I'm here to see something authentic-ish!
Which is why I was so delighted by what must have been the University of Michigan Gilbert & Sullivan Society's umpteenth staging of H.M.S. Pinafore. With the exception of a small amount of clever, harmless nonsense tacked on to the beginning of each act, this was a wonderfully authentic production, with very strong leads and a talented chorus, put on at a rollicking pace with a pit orchestra spilling over into the aisles of the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater.
Tom Cilluffo delivers an outstanding performance as Ralph Rackstraw. I really appreciate that UMGASS does not amplify their cast, and Cilluffo fills the hall with his mastery of the role, going for and easily nailing the high notes that even some professionals pass up. He's very funny as well, in a role that often gets played overly earnestly by high school sophomores in Kansas.
Adina Triolo as Josephine is even more excellent, anchoring the production with her talent and poise, balancing Josephine's ethereal solos with a gift for mugging as appropriate. Gilbert & Sullivan's original productions were famous for eschewing the stilted, heavily-stylized delivery of their time in favor of remarkably natural performances, and Triolo continues that tradition while still shining as a virtuoso in a challenging role. Yeah, so she also looks quite a bit like my high school crush. No, you have goosebumps.
Phillip Rhodes as Captain Corcoran does a great job with some of the show's best songs, and plays especially well with Don Regan, who is refined and funny as Sir Joseph. I will say I was disappointed by Sir Joseph's straightforward aristocratic costume; his frippery is usually a highlight of Pinafore Productions. However, Regan gets big bonus points for pronouncing "clerk" as "clark" to properly rhyme with "mark"; this is a Gilbert & Sullivan shibboleth; those who miss this rhyme should be put to death.
Andrew Burgmayer did an admirable job as Dick Deadeye, physically inhabiting the role thoroughly enough to make it a surprise when he shrugged it off for curtain call. I do wish I could have heard him a bit better, but it's a tough range. He and Rhodes did a wonderful job on "Kind Captain, I've Important Information," perhaps the only duet ever written about a torture implement.
Lee Vahlsing held the entire show together as Bill Bobstay, a role with a lot of exposition to deliver and did an outstanding job on "He is an Englishman." Vahlsing and Cilluffo were joined by U-M freshman and impressive bass Natan Zamansky on the challenging a capella sections of "A British Tar", and they nailed this song where community productions often run aground.
Lori Gould was a perfect Buttercup, adding some great asides to the role, and the director did a careful job to set up Meredith Kelly's Cousin Hebe as a love interest for Sir Joseph, which often seems to come out of nowhere once the social order inevitably goes all topsy-turvy. Surely that's not a spoiler, seeing as how THIS SHOW PREMIERED IN 1878.
All the sailors and sisters and cousins and aunts are well-rehearsed and the choreography is delightful, with some very clever and funny twists without falling into gimmickry.
My only real disappointment with this show was a truly nerdy nitpick; there's a short exchange between Sir Joseph and Hebe near the end that was a recitative in the early productions, but then became spoken dialogue. I don't care if the spoken version has been canon for 130 of the work's 138 years; I love that recitative and would have been thrilled to hear it! What do Gilbert & Sullivan know about Gilbert & Sullivan anyway?
And along those lines, there's an alternate ending where Sullivan added a chorus of "Rule, Britannia" to celebrate Queen Victoria's Jubilee. I love UMGASS's tradition of opening the show with having the audience stand and sing "God Save the Queen," and I was hoping they'd go with the Imperial ending! As you can see, these are very important concerns.
This is a fun, polished, and refreshingly straightforward production of one of the greatest works of musical theater, and a entertaining evening for total fo'c'sle noobs as well as for hopeless Savoy-savvy fussbudgets like me. Whether this is your first experience on the Saucy Ship or your hundredth, you're sure to enjoy the efforts of these safeguards of our nation. Congrats to cast and crew, and thanks for a trip down memory lane.
Eli Neiburger is Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor District Library and had no business being cast as Ralph Rackstraw in high school. Love levels all ranks, but it does not level them as much as that.
UMGASS presents H.M.S. Pinafore continues April 8, 9, and 10 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater. Ticket sales have closed online, but tickets will still be available for purchase at the Box Office.
The movie with the ghost grandpa in the mirror, the bright green food, and the absence of trolls despite being named Troll 2. The movie that repeated a five-minute scene four times. The movie where the dad tells his son that fool-proof plans are hard to come by. This year’s 25th annual Smithee Awards on Saturday, April 16th will honor all these and more of their B-movie brethren.
Named for the fake director credited when the actual director does not want their own name on such a horrible piece of cinema, the Smithee Awards celebrates all that is wonderful about really, really terrible movies.
Every year for the past 25 years, the volunteers behind the Smithee Awards have gathered fans of bad movies together on the campus of the University of Michigan to watch clips from movies such as Zombie Honeymoon, Frankenfish, and Superargo vs. Diabolicus.
This year viewers will enjoy categories like “Worst Special Effect,” “Most Ludicrous Premise,” “Stupidest Looking Monster,” and the self-explanatory “Whaaaat?!?!” Each of the 19 categories has five movie clips, and audience members vote on the best of the worst, or the worst of the best, depending on how one views life.
To up the awesome factor, the organizers provide free “food and drink” (they insist on the quotation marks). While watching a clip of, say, Die-ner, you may enjoy those weird, spongy, orange circus peanuts, giant Pixie Sticks, or bacon fudge. Wash that sugar down with a variety of soft drinks that often include the latest offering from Jones Soda.
Smithee Supreme Committee member Kevin Hogan says, "We are older than Pokemon. We have been around longer than Magic: the Gathering, and made several million fewer dollars. It's been 25 years of Smithee Awards shows -- this is the silver anniversary -- and every year is just as exciting as the first."
Previous worst picture winners include: Enter…Zombie King (about a zombie king’s existential crisis, of course), Metallica (robots in a junkyard make a suicide pact), and Back from Hell (featuring a scene wherein a hand reaches out from the Bible, grabs a preacher’s crotch and then tries to strangle him).
Whether you are a B-movie horror aficionado or not, come out to 1800 Chem Building on April 16 at 7 pm to enjoy movies that can be described as “like the darker side of Hee-Haw.” Because everyone needs a little dark-side of Hee-Haw in their life.
Community contributor Patti Smith is a teacher, writer, and lover of all things Ann Arbor.
The Smithee Awards take place in Room 1800 of the Chemistry Building at 930 University Ave. on Saturday, April 16 at 7 pm until around midnight.
For anyone in Ann Arbor who likes to work with yarn, the Fiber Expo is a highlight to the year. The Fiber Expo brings together local artisans, shopkeepers, and farmers. Walking through the expo can bring you into contact with anything from angora rabbits to hand dyed yarn to looms and spinning wheels. The expo always bustles with life and energy as friends move from stall to stall, looking at different yarns and shawl pins, envisioning what they can make with the wealth of raw materials before them.
Though vendors are a major offering of the Fiber Expo, it’s not just about buying yarn and roving (unspun wool). The expo is about meeting other fiber enthusiasts from the area, meeting the people who are growing their own fiber, and seeing what other people are creating with fiber. Each expo also features a strong offering of classes that cover a range of skills. The goals of the Fiber Expo are to get natural fibers into people’s hands and to spread knowledge about how to work with fiber. Ultimately, the Fiber Expo is a place for discovery and creativity for anyone who works with or has an interest in fiber.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL and can't get enough wool.
The Fiber Expo is April 9th and 10th, at the Washtenaw Farm Council Grounds on Ann Arbor Saline Road. Tickets are $4 for one day or $6 for the weekend.
The University of Michigan production of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid is giddy, bawdy, extremely noisy, and intermittently funny.
Translator James Magruder sought to recreate the theatrical carnival that would have surrounded and interrupted Molière's play when it was first produced in 1673, but in the process Molière's satire takes a back seat and a beating. Director Daniel Cantor takes Magruder's ideas and adds on some of his own. Molière is a mix of pratfalls and comic repartee but the physical action here is often aimless and drags on and the verbal wit is often lost in the noise.
The production seems less like a carnival than a mishmash of Ionesco and Beckett, fart jokes raised to art by Aristophanes and beloved by 12-year-olds everywhere, English music hall and French chanteuses and even a Saturday Night Live skit.
The set design by Vincent Mountain seems to borrow a bit from Chaplin's factory scene in Modern Times or maybe from Fritz Lang's Metropolis as a way to emphasize constant motion, and every once in a while explodes in bubbles. The costumes are not time specific and range from Molière's day to the early 20th Century. The Entr'acte Company wear form fitting suits that would work just as well in a Star Trek play.
The high point of the production is one of the interludes developed by Cantor and the company. The comedy here is quick-footed, makes good use of modern day references, and cheerfully involves the audience. A talented actor named Caleb Foote delivers the goods, dressed as part clown, part busker serenading his beloved. Foote knows how to grab an audience and hold them for dear life. He makes the best of the free form material with a good singing voice and lively banter.
The cast of the central play is fine. Jesse Aaronson gets to ham it up as Argan, the titled imaginary invalid. He moans, groans, and makes body noises as an insufferable hypochondriac. Argan does battle with his impertinent servant Toinette, played with proper spunk and fire by Kay Kelley. Savannah Crosby plays Argan's older daughter, whom he tries to marry off to a doctor's son so he can be under constant care. She plays the daughter as a pretty 19th Century melodrama maid with a bit of a twinkle.
Also notable are Delaney Moro as Argan's second wife, who plots to take his fortune and sneers appropriately; Brendan Alpiner as the unappealing suitor who reels out memorized spiels of twisted flattery; and Anna Markowitz as the younger daughter, who jostles amusingly with her father, verbally and physically.
But the acrobatics, anachronisms, noise, and busyness drown out the satire that still has some power in our times of medical disasters and cure all fads. A last bit of SNL comedy in the finale makes reference to the presidential campaign at a time when that campaign has turned into dangerous high comedy itself.
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.
The Imaginary Invalid continues April 2, 8, and 9 at 8 pm, April 3 and 10 at 2 pm, and April 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the UM North Campus. Tickets are available 9 am to 5 pm at the League Ticket Office within the Michigan League. Order by phone at (734)764-2538.
The Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan presents dozens of humanities-related events every year. A highlight of 2016 is the Jill S. Harris Memorial Lecture on April 5, when writer and The Nation columnist Laila Lalami will talk about the long and rich history of Muslims in the United States.
Lalami is a writer whose insightful cultural commentary, literary criticism, and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among many other publications. She has also written three books, including the The Moor’s Account, a 2015 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A work of historical fiction, the book is the imagined memoir of Estebanico, a real-life Moroccan slave--and the first black explorer of America--who accompanied the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez from Spain to the US Gulf Coast in 1527. The book gives an alternate narrative of the famed expedition, illuminating the role that black men played in exploring the New World.
In her April 5 talk, Lalami aims to illuminate the history of Muslims in America--from 14th-century Moors and Syrian auto workers in the early 1900s, to African slaves and Palestinians immigrating after the 1948 establishment of Israel. Lalami proposes that, not unlike the part Estebanico played in the New World exploration, the part Muslims have played in U.S. history is misunderstood and underestimated, and that they are often seen as “latecomers to America, recent arrivals who’ve grafted themselves into an already thriving country.”
Lalami makes direct connections between anti-Muslim sentiment--on the rise for sure, but not a new thing--with this “forgotten history” of American Muslims. But through better understanding of history and its transmission, Lalami proposes that fiction can help us fill in some of the detail missing from the mainstream narrative of Muslims in America.
Community contributor Stephanie Harrell is the communications specialist at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan.
Muslims in America: A Forgotten History, An evening with Laila Lalami is the 2016 Jill S. Harris Memorial Lecture, taking place Tuesday, April 5, 2016 from 4-6 pm in the Rackham Amphitheatre. The event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited; please arrive early.
Akira (1988), directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and based on his 6 volume manga series of the same name, was my first non-Studio Ghibli feature length anime. As a dedicated fan, I grew up watching Speed Racer and Rurouni Kenshin, and after seeing Princess Mononoke, became obsessed with watching every Studio Ghibli film I could. I had never branched out to other anime films, but after reading a few books on early anime and its cultural impact, I decided that Akira sounded like a good intro to everything non-Studio Ghibli. So I borrowed a copy from AADL (the 2 disc collector’s set), and sat down to watch it, not knowing quite what to expect. And then I watched it twice. And then I watched the excellent documentary about the creation of the film on the second disc. After that I caved in and bought my own copy, plus the soundtrack. Visually, technically, and artistically Akira just blew me away.
The film takes place in 2019. Old Tokyo was destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion during WWIII, and Neo-Tokyo was built in its place, and the world we are shown is harsh. The divide between the rich and the poor is very obvious. Political factions fight each other for control of the government, anti-government revolutionary groups protest and set off bombs, and biker gangs openly feud in the streets. The scope of the story is huge, which is not surprising when you consider that over 1,000 pages of manga had to be condensed to a film that runs about 2 hours. What grounds the plot are Kaneda and Tetsuo, two friends living in Neo-Tokyo, and their individual struggles with power. All of the plots of Akira ultimately boil down to whether or not power, either in the hands of the government, revolutionaries, or children with psychic abilities, is used responsibly, and the repercussions of that use.
Although the story and characters are nuanced and compelling, the art and technicality of the animation is the real star. Akira is simply visually stunning, but in a way that is jarring and disturbing. This film is unashamed to show a gritty, dirty, and unattractive world, right down to images of garbage in the streets and a plethora of garish neon advertisements. There are no beautiful sweeping vistas of nature or effort to show Neo-Tokyo as a tastefully designed metropolis. Instead we have scenes of extreme violence that go hand-in-hand with fantastic visuals. A fight between two rival biker gangs at the beginning of the film is as shocking for the blood and broken bones as it is for the color trails of the motorcycle’s tail lights as they speed through the city. A building is completely destroyed in a psychic attack while broken glass from the windows glitters and dances as it falls to the ground. Even the characters facial and mouth movements, which were animated to closely match the movements of the voice actors using a technique called pre-scored dialogue, lends a realism that is not seen in other animated films of this time.
I would also be remiss not to mention the excellent score composed by Shoji Yamashiro. With an innovative blending of traditional Japanese instruments, electronic sounds, and the human voice, the soundtrack creates an immediacy and vibrancy to the action. Akira did not skimp on production values, and it shows. This is not a film to be missed on the big screen, from the shocking explosion at the beginning to the grotesque and extremely bizarre ending. If you are a serious, or even casual, fan of animation, you need to go and see this film!
Marisa Szpytman spends her days working at the Detroit Institute of Arts and she has been in the same room as a spoon once owned by Vincent Price.
The CineManga Film Series continues through April 27 on Wednesdays at 7 pm with the following screenings at the State Theater: Akira on April 6, Space Battleship Yamato on April 13, Paprika (Papurika) on April 20, and Tokyo Tribe on April 27. You can find more information on the Michigan Theater's CineManga page.
Don't forget to check out the Japanese style concessions (the elusive green tea Kit Kat!) and Vault of Midnight's pop-up store in the State Theater's lobby. Each show features a special pre-show primer by a certified manga expert to further convince you that these films are awesome!
Khemia Ensemble, a contemporary classical music ensemble based in Ann Arbor, will present Voyages, a one night-only audio visual performance at the Kerrytown Concert House. Their show will feature a customized interactive real-time display in partnership with Cincinnati-based Intermedio that captures sonic and movement data from performers for an immersive experience reminiscent of a rock or electronica concert.
The group's goal is to bring fresh eyes to the way contemporary classical music is taught, created, learned, and performed by focusing on dynamic performances, audience engagement, and the music of living composers. Members are selected as an inaugural Performing Arts EXCELerator team as well as an ArtsEngine team through a University of Michigan School-wide application process.
Khemia Ensemble have been the ensemble in residence at the Composition and Music Research Biennial in Cordoba, Argentina, as well as at the University of Cordoba and the National University of Colombia. Members hold degrees from the University of Michigan, Juilliard, Yale School of Music, New England Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory, Rice University, and Hochschule für Musik der Stadt Basel.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at AADL.
Voyages will take place on April 9th at Kerrytown Concert House at 8:30 pm. Doors open at 8:15 pm. Tickets: $10, students $8, children $5. Appropriate for all audiences.
There’s not much question that someday University of Michigan's emeritus art professor Larry Cressman is going to have his requisite career retrospective—many of them, in fact. But Land Lines at the University of Michigan's Rotunda Gallery is going to have to serve this purpose in the short term.
In this last decade Cressman has held only three local exhibits: Installation Drawings: Dogbane at the U-M East Quad Art Gallery in October 2016; Material Matters in conjunction with ceramicist Susan Crowell at Chelsea’s River Gallery in November 2009; and his Ground Cover/Covering Ground Drawings at the River Gallery in April 2014.
Yet through this period, he’s also had exhibits at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Hewlett Gallery in Pennsylvania; the Nelson Gallery at the University of California-Davis; the Hill Gallery in Birmingham, MI; and the Richard M. Ross Museum in Ohio.
What these far-flung locales have seen is Cressman’s remarkable work at its minimalist best. His work is comprised of the patient accumulation of hundreds of sticks and twigs in intricate patterns that both delight and defy the viewer’s eye.
It’s one of those modernist artforms that some might say is common enough for anyone to produce—until one actually tries. It becomes apparent soon enough that it takes a thoroughly uncommon attention to detail and a patient aesthetic to piece these works together in their exceptional equilibrium.
These “line drawings” sit somewhere between the three-dimensional form and the nearly infinitesimal two-dimensional line. It is, of course, merely the coarseness of our vision that insists on differentiating between these two dimensions because they are ultimately only a matter of physical degree.
As Cressman says in his artist’s statement to the exhibit:
“A line drawing released from the flatness of paper can exist anywhere. It can venture into our space. It can be kinetic. It can cast its own shadow. The scale of the drawing is only restricted by the architectural space in which it is placed. Work that is temporary allows an additional freedom—any ephemeral material is possible—glass, rubber, electrical wire, plastic, sound, sticks—all materials I have used in my installations over time.
"Most recently I have focused on the use of sticks and twigs—specifically raspberry cane, dogbane, daylily and prairie dock. Gathering this material from fields near my home has become a part of the drawing process. The gestural quality of each plant and the physical nature of the material (density, weight and brittleness) all play a role in my installation drawings as I explore work that is reflective of both the structure and randomness of the environment.”
It’s this drawing with physical form that makes Cressman’s art so uncommonly compelling. The variable line of shadow in conjunction with the often nearly imperceptible flow of air coursing through the site cause the twigs and sticks to sway against the gallery wall—and these investigations into almost indiscernible elevated space make the installation’s stunning forays into multiple dimensionality all the more marvelous.
It’s possible—and indeed preferable—to spend an extended period of time visually tracing Cressman’s line through his varied stems and twigs. Each work features a strikingly different configuration and pattern. What they do share is a focus that makes them readily recognizable as Cressman’s handiwork.
Perhaps the signal artwork of the Rotunda Gallery exhibit is 2015’s magnificently oversized eleven by six by three foot “Shift” installation. This daylily stalk, graphite, matte medium and glue tour de force is an unquestionable masterwork that illustrates Cressman’s art at its most accomplished.
His three-dimensional etched line has been released from its flat surface as modulated diagonal stems protrude from the work’s vertical limbs crafting a heady, disruptive spur to its otherwise sublime symmetry. Each horizontally mounted twig has its own distinct integrity as no two stems exactly resemble each other, even as each has the same individuating appearance.
There is, therefore, an internal harmony to the stray disorderly offshoots in “Shift” that most certainly highlights the similarities and differences of Cressman’s artistry. And it’s this keenly rendered gestalt that rewards our attention.
Among other Cressman works, 2015’s “Centerline I” carries this theme with its binary horizontal rows of raspberry cane, graphite, matte medium, and pins hovering against the gallery wall—as opposed to the similar yet overlapping rows of raspberry cane, graphite, matte medium and pins in 2015’s “Centerline.” Cressman carries his folding of materials together in the latter work with as much regularity as in the former strictly constructed drawing.
Each of the 15 Cressman artworks in this exhibit traverses this intricate divide between dimensions—abiding silently both trace and shadow—to draw our attention to the world that lies in-between. His subtle asymmetry keeps us off balance even as the artwork's paradoxical equilibrium holds our attention in balance.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan North Campus Research Complex: "Larry Cressman: Land Lines" will run through April 29, 2016. The NCRC Building 18 Rotunda Gallery is located at 2800 Plymouth Road. The NCRC is open Monday-Friday 8 am–6 pm For information, call 734-936-3326.
The Ann Arbor Film Festival has been a staple of the Ann Arbor arts scene for over half a century. Every year films from around the world are submitted, judged, and shown to hundreds of movie-lovers, and every year I think to myself, “Eh. Maybe I’ll go some other year.”
This year my curiosity finally outweighed my love of staying home and I found myself preparing to attend the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.
It’s important to note that I’m an avid movie-goer. I can sit through the goofiest horror movies, the most pointless action movies, and the sappiest romantic comedies, because I just love being at the movies. I like pulling up to the theater on a sunny day and people-watching as I’m waiting in line to buy my ticket. I like sitting in the dark, reading the screen trivia, and waiting for my movie to start. I like theater pretzels and, more importantly, the strange, delicious, scientific mystery that is theater cheese.
My unbelievably low movie standards don’t hurt either. I mean, I liked ALL of those Transformers movies.
But despite my wide-ranging love of cinema, I worried about attending something as serious and prestigious as the AAFF. I worried that it would be dull. I worried that it would full of be odd, deep, confusing films that would be far too avant-garde for my Michael Bay-loving palette. I think I secretly assumed that every movie would basically be like that short film Kirk made on Gilmore Girls. But weirder. And longer. And with fewer fun dance numbers.
But despite my apprehension I desperately wanted to know what this highly-acclaimed festival was all about and, Kirk or no Kirk, the familiar embrace of a movie theater—any movie theater—beckoned.
So I put on my fanciest pants and started at the beginning—the first AAFF event of the year: the Opening Night Reception and Screening.
My first impression of the festival as I walked into the Michigan Theater that night was that it had been silly to think this event wasn’t for me. There were people in their flashiest gowns, the kind you tuck the tag into so you can return it the next day, and there were people who looked like they’d just come from class or work or wandered in off the street, following the delicious scent of buttered popcorn.
This event, it was clear, was for absolutely everyone. This was my first thought as I entered the festival on Tuesday and my last as I left my final screening on Friday night. That feeling of welcome, of variety, of come-as-you-are-and-we-swear-you’ll-find-something-you-like stayed with me throughout the entire festival.
The opening night reception was filled with this open energy and with music that reflected the formal yet fun vibe by mixing classic tunes with, at one point, the jaunty, triumphant notes of the Indiana Jones theme song.
That same energy flowed along with the crowd into the main auditorium as we all took our seats for the first screening of the season, a mix of short films designed to start the festival off with a little bit of everything. Maybe it was the celebratory feel that comes with any opening night or maybe it was the fact that the reception had had an open bar, but the staid, serious atmosphere I'd expected was completely absent. People talked and laughed right up until the show started.
When the first short film ended, the applause was thunderous. When the second film called for the audience to put on those classic, foldable 3D glasses with blue and red lenses, one man shouted “The red goes over the right eye!” and everyone laughed because this was completely wrong and it took half the room a few seconds to realize they’d put their glasses on upside-down. At one point, someone dropped a glass bottle and the entire room listened with barely-contained giggles as the bottle rolled slowly and loudly from the back of the theater’s sloped floor to the front.
The friendly ambiance of opening night left me pleasantly surprised and eager for more, and that eagerness kept me going all the way through Wednesday, which was, if I’m honest, my darkest day at the festival. The first screening I attended that day was News From Home by filmmaker Chantal Akerman and my first feature-length film of the festival. This was a calm, tranquil movie that consisted of lengthy shots of 1970s New York City, as it was when Akerman first moved there from Belgium, with letters from her mother read aloud over (and sometimes under) the bustling street noise.
I went through a few stages of emotion as I watched this film. First I was intrigued, drawn in by the newness of experimental film and fascinated by the idea that these steady, action-less shots could make up an entire movie. Then, I’ll admit, I was bored. I’m a product of the modern age, used to movies laden with special effects and preferably at least one car-chase scene—and I’m used to watching them while I play video games on my phone. So sitting still and watching stillness felt foreign and uncomfortable, sort of like a brand new pair of shoes that I hadn’t quite broken in yet. Then, after a little while, the film seemed to just wash right over me and the steady scenes, the fuzzy crackle of 16mm film, and the quiet tones of Akerman’s soft Belgian accent as she read her mother’s letters became comfortable, almost meditative. Suddenly I was noticing the people in the scenes more, watching their actions and admiring their quintessentially 70s outfits. The moment I stopped resenting the film for not being what I was used to, I could enjoy it for what it was.
Then came the rough patch. My next film screening, which immediately followed News From Home, was another medley of short films, just like the opening night—though this is where all similarities ended. The ten films were all experimental and the entire event was probably my worst-case scenario. I couldn’t grasp the concepts or meanings of any of the films. Some of them contained vaguely familiar imagery cut together in seemingly random order while some seemed like they were intended to be viewed by some alien audience. Some of the films seemed like they were furiously protesting being watched at all. One film was just icons and symbols that flashed bright then dark on the screen to an incredibly loud semi-rhythmic pulsing/pounding noise and by the end it had gotten so aggressive I’d had to plug my ears and close my eyes just to get through it. If ever I have wished for a pair of ruby slippers to click together or a really huge, comedy-sized mallet to clobber myself with, it was then. I left the screening almost afraid to continue on.
But I'd set out to get the full, unadulterated experience of AAFF, and after a night of rest and consideration, I decided that in a festival where there was something for everyone, I was bound to run into some things that weren’t for me.
So, like a glutton for punishment, I returned on Thursday for more—and was incredibly glad that I did. The Carl Bogner Juror Presentation was another screening of short films, this time selected by Bogner himself, a lecturer on experimental film at the University of Wisconsin, and my reaction to this event was a complete turnaround from the day before. I left this screening with a satisfied feeling and a number of favorites, including Je Suis Une Bombe (I Am a Bomb), a video of a woman in a panda suit doing a provocative pole dance and then delivering a passionate speech on feminism and womanhood, and My Parents Read Dreams That I’ve Had About Them, which was literally just that—a deadpan elderly couple, presumably the filmmaker's parents, reading dreams about themselves from pieces of paper being handed to them from off screen. The subtle humor of this last film had the entire audience chuckling.
On Friday I returned for my final and longest day of the festival and was immediately faced with something I hadn’t yet experienced—a genuine film festival disaster. As I sat in my first event of the evening, Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, I noticed a few jumps and blips in the steady, slow-moving footage. This film, like her other work, was filled with scenery, people, and little else, this time taking place in East Germany, Poland, and Russia, and as I sat immersed in the quiet images and endless stream of Cossack hats the screen suddenly went dark. I’ll be honest, there had been a few times during the festival where I’d been unable to distinguish experimental films from technical difficulties, so when the screen blinked to life again I was half-convinced this was actually just some zany film technique. What did I know? Then, minutes later, the image on the screen abruptly burst and melted until all that was left was a blank white screen and then darkness. The unified gasp of the audience as the 16mm film burned under the projector was immense, as if the screening room itself had sucked in a breath.
In the past few days, I’d been part of a lot of communal experiences, and now I'd gotten to be a part of a communal tragedy. The sense of loss was a tangible thing in the room and when the screening was ended early (the film, we were told, had experienced some shrinkage and despite his best efforts, there was nothing the projectionist could do to make it usable) all I could do was turn to the person next to me and go, “Oh no, do you think the film’s okay?” like I was asking about a gravely injured friend. Who knew I could feel such deep concern for something that, days before, I’d been glaring at, wishing it had more quippy one-liners and explosions?
My final event, late that night, was also the absolute pinnacle of the festival for me. I'd spent the entire week looking forward to the Animated Films in Competition, or “animation night” as some of the super-hip festival-goers called it. It didn’t disappoint. Even the strangest films were elevated by beautiful animation and almost all featured equally charming stories. Bottom Feeders, by Matt Reynolds, was a terrifying parody of life, death, and reproduction. Love, by Réka Bucsi, was offbeat and whimsical, featuring hugging humanoid fruits and cute but headless horses. And I felt a special love for Nina Gantz's Edmond, about a sweet little man who feels so strongly that he finds himself devouring the things he loves most—especially the people. It was hands-down the most adorable film about cannibalism I’ve ever seen.
I began AAFF full of worries. Would I like the movies? Would I understand them? Was there anything at all for me at this festival besides, obviously, the many pounds of candy I would inevitably eat?
As it turned out, AAFF took the movie experience I enjoy so much and amplified it to the nth degree. Besides the films themselves, the festival experience was an entirely new beast for me and a remarkably friendly one. Visiting the festival was like being in a popcorn-filled incubator.
After a few days the Michigan Theater, the heart of the festival, began to exert its own gravitational pull and every time I stepped back into the warm lights of the lobby it felt, oddly, like coming home. Each room of the theater became familiar. The backs of peoples’ heads became familiar. “Oh! That’s the hair I saw during yesterday’s film screening,” I would find myself thinking, and then wonder if I was going crazy, and then decide I didn’t care. I became so acquainted with the festival staff and presenters that it was jarring to see them out in the regular world a week later and realize that they didn't know who I was. To them I was just one in a sea of faces, but to me, they were the people who made the announcements and the bad jokes and gave me directions and helped me understand what I was seeing for four days in a row. I grew accustomed to the familiar path from the parking garage to the theater, and from the theater to the neighboring coffee shop, and from the coffee shop to the theater’s screening room. I even sprinted these well-known paths a few (dozen) times when I was nearly (very) late to a screening (or ten).
By the end, AAFF almost had that temporary-home feeling of summer camp, where every face was one I knew and I got to eat as much junk food as I wanted while I wandered around, unfailingly welcome no matter where I was.
Even those films that made me want to pull my hair out and scream seemed to amplify my feelings of success when I found those little theatrical gems that made it all worth it. And besides, when had I ever felt such intense emotion about any movie? Even if it was the all-consuming desire to punch a film right in the face.
It’s tough to say in so few words how I felt about the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. It was a strange, funny, boring, exhilarating, fascinating experience. It was a candy-filled, stomach-ache-producing, movie-lover’s-dream experience. It was a fun experience. It was a unique experience.
It was an experience.
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she never thought she'd used the words "adorable" and "cannibalism" in the same sentence. It's been a weird week.
Every spring in Ann Arbor, there are telltale signs that things are going to change, bloom, and get warmer: dirty piles of snow & leftover grit, giant potholes, crocuses poking from the soil, Hash Bash attendees filling the Diag with plumes of smoke, and a weekend of April Fools fun! Mark your calendars for Friday, April 1 and Sunday, April 3 for two of the most anticipated, dynamic, and artful events in town: FoolMoon and Festifools!
Friday’s FoolMoon is the newer of the two events with a slightly edgier feel, if only because it happens at night and beer can be consumed. The fun starts at three gathering places (Kerrytown Farmers Market, University of Michigan Art Museum, and Slauson Middle School) where revelers can assemble with their carefully crafted illuminated sculptures. The crowds at each stop march through town, proudly displaying their handiwork, to gather at Washington St. & Ashley St. for a lighted street party with a beer tent, music, glowing puppets, wild and luminous costumes, movies & images projected on buildings and moonlit, shining sights. From dusk 'til midnight, people of all ages dance, play, and marvel at all of the illuminated art. This year’s theme is Metamor-FOOL-sis!
AADL always has a tent at FoolMoon and we’ll be hosting rousing games of Johann Sebastian Joust, an all ages, no-graphics, digitally enabled playground game using illuminated motion-sensitive controllers. Attendees can play with our lighted hula-hoops and other fun digital instruments and tools that can be checked out from the library.
Festifools is celebrating 10 years of foolishness this year with the annual event happening on Sunday from 4-5 pm on Main St. between William St. and Washington St. - parking is free on Sundays! This year’s theme is Rev-FOOL-ution! Community members and U-M students work for months to create the large, wild, colorful, and frequently topical papier-mâché puppets that will be marched, pranced, danced, and displayed during Festifools. In addition to the puppets there's music, joyful noise, drumming, and an enthusiastic crowd of all ages!
As has also become tradition, the library hosts an annual Robot Making event on Saturday, April 2 from 2-3:30 pm for families to come and make their own robot costume to wear and then march in during the Festifools parade on Sunday!
The origins of these special events start with Mark Tucker, Arts Director at the University of Michigan Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, who began his professional artistic career as Art Director for the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade. While in this role, Mark traveled to Europe to learn the fine art of cartapesta (papier mâché) from esteemed float builders in Viareggio, Italy. If you’re familiar with New York City's Superior Concept Monsters, then you may have an inkling of the FestiFools vibe.
Inspired by the magnificent, huge, bizarre, politically incorrect, human-powered, and fully animated floats, Mark decided to see if this kind of creative energy could find an audience back home.
FoolMoon and Festifools are produced by WonderFool Productions, a nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging communities in dynamic, educational, collaborative and entertaining public art experiences.
Erin Helmrich is a librarian at AADL, and she'll be smothering her sadness at missing this year's festivities with margaritas in Mexico.
FoolMoon is Friday, April 1, from dusk 'til midnight in downtown Ann Arbor (Washington & Ashley) and Festifools is Sunday, April 3 from 4-5 pm in downtown Ann Arbor on Main St. between William and Washington.