Societies of Cinema: Frank Uhle creates AADL exhibit, hosts a roundtable at the 61st Ann Arbor Film Fest discussing the cultural influence of campus film groups
Frank Uhle's upcoming book, Cinema Ann Arbor, covers the entire scope of film history in the city, from the old theaters no longer with us to the students who went on to be famous moviemakers.
But the campus cinema societies, who brought art films and experimental movies to town, are the heart of the tome's 344 pages.
Cinema Ann Arbor is a co-publication of Fifth Avenue Press—the Ann Arbor District Library's publishing imprint—and the University of Michigan Press and officially comes out in June, but Uhle will have 50 copies for sale in time for the roundtable he's hosting on Friday, March 24, as part of the 61st Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF).
Uhle will moderate "Cinema Guild and Campus Film Societies: Their History and Legacy," a discussion with former University of Michigan film society members, including Hugh Cohen, a longtime cinema professor, a juror at the second AAFF in 1964, and the faculty advisor to Cinema Guild in 1967 when he and three others were arrested for showing Flaming Creatures, a short that was deemed obscene. Cohen is joined by Dave DeVarti (Alternative Action film series), Philip Hallman (Ann Arbor Film Cooperative), and Anne Moray (Film Projection Service).
To coincide with AAFF, Uhle also put together an exhibit at AADL's Downtown location, "Cinema Ann Arbor: Film Societies, Film Festivals, and Filmmaking in the Analog Era," which is on display through April 13. It features artifacts from Uhle's personal collection as well as material he gathered during his extensive research while writing Cinema Ann Arbor. (Additionally, Uhle and AADL's archives team are posting material to an online repository at aadl.org/cinemaannarbor.)
We'll speak to Uhle more in-depth about Cinema Ann Arbor when it comes out this summer (though you can pre-order it now). Our interview below is specifically about the cinema societies that helped influence Ann Arbor culture for nearly 70 years as well as his AADL exhibit.
Q: Why do the University of Michigan cinema guilds hold such a prominent place in your book and Ann Arbor cinema history?
A: Though mostly forgotten today, the University of Michigan’s student film societies were instrumental in making Ann Arbor a film-centric community. When the first so-called “art” films appeared in the mid-1920s, the local commercial theaters showed little interest in programming them, so in 1929 the manager of the new Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, Amy Loomis, began booking titles like The Passion of Joan of Arc between live events. After she left town in 1932, a group of faculty and students founded the Art Cinema League to continue what she had begun, thus launching what was quite possibly the first campus film society in the U.S. It morphed into Cinema Guild in 1950, and as more groups appeared in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the local alternative film scene reached such heights that Leonard Maltin singled out Ann Arbor as “one of the most cinematically saturated communities in the country” in his 1983 Whole Film Sourcebook.
It is important to remember that before home video, cable, and streaming, films were only available as a strip of celluloid that had to be projected onto a screen, and most people living outside a big city couldn’t easily see anything but new Hollywood releases and occasional popular imports. But through the film societies’ efforts, most nights of the week Ann Arborites could choose from classic American and foreign films, silent movies, documentaries, experimental films, and, frequently, regional and even national premieres, not to mention visits from filmmakers like Frank Capra, Jean-Luc Godard, and Robert Altman. As a result, this town became a destination for movie lovers from around the state. In addition to helping inspire film society members like future writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, Boyhood producer John Sloss, and critic/author Neal Gabler, the groups became a film school for people like Michael Moore, Ken Burns, Detroit Film Theater curator Elliott Wilhelm, and Variety chief critic Owen Gleiberman, among others.
A display case at the AADL exhibit "Cinema Ann Arbor: Film Societies, Film Festivals, and Filmmaking in the Analog Era." Photo by Frank Uhle.
Q: The film societies are well represented in the exhibition you put together for AADL, too. Tell us about the process of putting this exhibit together.
A: When I started the book I envisioned it as a blend of text and illustrations, so over the six years it took me to write I was gathering flyers, photos, and ephemera from the more than 80 people I interviewed as well as scans from the Bentley Historical Library, U-M Labadie collection, AADL photo archives, etc. Having been a member of Cinema II in the 1980s and then a projectionist, and, frankly, a bit of a hoarder, I also found a lot of things in my attic! Some of the coolest items include Cinema Guild’s original 1950s/'60s financial ledger, which lists all the distributors and local businesses they were then working with; a vintage Bolex 16 mm camera and Nagra tape recorder that student filmmakers used in the ‘60s; and one of the hand-drawn animated films that audience members created each year at the film festival, which I unspooled and strung up so their amazing handiwork can be seen once again.
January 19, 1967 article in The Ann Arbor News covering the students protesting against the police seizure of the film Flaming Creatures.
Q: In 1967 four members of the Cinema Guild were arrested by Ann Arbor police for showing Flaming Creatures, a film short deemed obscene. How did their arrest galvanize, change, or disrupt cultural offerings on campus?
A: During a year of enormous societal upheaval, the arrests often dominated the local news and were covered in national outlets including The New York Times. The U-M administration officially declared it was leaving the students to face the consequences on their own, and opinions were widely split on campus, with the art school faculty voicing support but engineering professors voting to condemn Cinema Guild. As the case dragged on for nearly a year, a faculty panel was convened to discuss censorship, and defense funds were raised with events including an MC5 concert at the Union Ballroom and an appearance by Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground at Hill Auditorium.
On the first day of the trial one of the students decided to plead guilty to a lesser charge and the case against the others was dropped, though both student Ellen Frank and faculty advisor Hugh Cohen had been hoping for a legal showdown over freedom of speech. While Hugh told me that afterward Cinema Guild did become slightly more restrained in its programming, I would note that on the one-year anniversary of the arrests they screened works by the two experimental filmmakers featured that fateful night, including George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked, which includes copious nudity.
As a coda to the whole affair, in the summer of 1968, the confiscated print was flown to Washington by arresting officer Lt. Eugene Staudenmaier and police chief Walter Krasny, who showed it to senators debating the nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Fortas had dissented when the court found Flaming Creatures obscene in the months after the Cinema Guild arrests, and his nomination was ultimately revoked and he later resigned.
Q: Hugh Cohen is going to be part of your Ann Arbor Film Fest roundtable. How did the arrest and notoriety, however brief, affect his life?
A: He told me that two things about the case stand out for him today. First, to his surprise, after he was charged with showing “obscene” films, a number of seemingly liberal colleagues and acquaintances distanced themselves from him, which he found disappointing. And second, when it was over, many other people praised his courage in standing up for his principles and he personally became more daring and less afraid of taking a stand on issues he believed in.
His career was not really affected, thankfully, and when the university finally launched a film program in the mid-1970s, spurred in part by the great interest in film the societies had helped develop, Hugh’s Film/Video 236 class became its required entry-level course. I was sometimes the projectionist for it, and I can tell you that it was an intense, clip-filled immersion in the language of film, which prominent industry alumni still rave about. Hugh continued to teach the class through 2016 and remains an energetic teacher of film at the university today at the age of 92.
Q: Is campus culture—and culture in society—too dispersed and individualized now for groups like the film societies to have as much effect in 2023?
A: Things certainly have become more diffuse, and the previous prominence of film in the local cultural mix—due in part to the societies’ colorful calendars being hung on every refrigerator and dorm wall around town—seems impossible to recapture. And because movies enter the digital realm so rapidly, the sense of urgency there once was to see a film that might not reappear in town for years, or perhaps ever, has vanished. I would also suspect that the university has far less tolerance of ragtag underground groups like the film societies using its facilities, which not infrequently brought unwanted media attention as with the Flaming Creatures bust.
But movie lovers here still have more choices than in most places thanks to the Michigan and State theaters. While the last student film group, the university-sponsored M-Flicks, puts on only a few shows per semester on a low-key basis, several language departments that once co-sponsored a series with the film societies have moved their curated offerings to the Michigan and State. And, of course, those theaters often present special thematic series and visiting filmmakers, as well as many limited releases and documentaries that don’t get shown in multiplexes. And our fabulous Ann Arbor Film Festival carries on as one of the most important independent and experimental film events in the world, drawing submissions and visitors from all over. I haven’t compared the present-day offerings here with other cities or campuses, but I would bet that we still are one of the more “cinematically saturated” places around, if not so frenetic as in the wild west years of the film societies.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
The "Cinema Guild and Campus Film Societies: Their History and Legacy" roundtable is on Friday, March 24, at 3:30 pm at North Quad Space 2435, 105 S State St., Ann Arbor. The event is free. Vist aafilmfest.org for more information.