Screen Tests: Experimental shorts by Ann Arbor filmmakers
Like all great things, the Ann Arbor Film Festival rose from humble beginnings.
Founded in 1963 by filmmaker and connoisseur George Manupelli, the festival quickly earned an international reputation as a premier venue for independent and experimental cinema. The Michigan Theater has provided the AAFF with a luxurious home since 1980, but the original home base was the University of Michigan’s Architecture Auditorium (now known as Askwith), and the vibes back then were decidedly scruffier.
Local film historian, projectionist, and author Frank Uhle remembers it well.
“In the early days of the Film Festival, audiences were very interactive,” he explained. “There was always a smell of stale beer, cigarettes, and pot smoke in the air. Inevitably some of the films were boring, or pretentious, or deliberately provocative, and people would yell their opinions at the screen or whistle and make noise.
“Sometimes another person would defend the movie and an argument would ensue. Always, a beer bottle would get tipped over in the dark and roll noisily down the sloped floor while everyone snickered.”
That’s the kind of anarchic spirit Uhle will be conjuring on Friday, December 1 at 7 pm when he hosts “Experimental Shorts by Ann Arbor Filmmakers From the 1960s-80s,” a free screening of vintage celluloid at Askwith Auditorium in Lorch Hall. (It's part of U-M's semester-long "Arts and Resistance" series.)
No, he’s not going to let you smoke in there, but he’ll be showing early homegrown AAFF favorites in the same venue they first flickered in back when the counterculture was the culture and the art was the point.
Uhle went to his first AAFF in 1978 and has been involved in local film culture ever since. His recent book, Cinema Ann Arbor, covers the 100-year history of A2’s campus cinema societies and the filmmakers they inspired and nurtured.
Students first officially organized film clubs in 1932 to screen non-mainstream fare, local interest grew along with the AAFF and the university began its film program in 1968. By the 1970s, there were multiple, competing student film societies outdoing each other with screenings of foreign rarities, forgotten Hollywood masterpieces, and uncompromising experiments. It was inevitable that a devoted scene of filmmakers would bloom in such soil, and it’s these artists that Uhle celebrates, a few of whom he’ll have on hand for a Q and A session after the screening.
The films share a loose, improvisational approach but cover a wide range of styles. Handmade animation, abstract imagery, punk lampoonery, cinema verite slices-of-life, introspective moodiness, anti-war agitprop, plus vintage promos and ephemera from film society screenings of the day. Some haven’t been seen for decades, enjoying only a handful of local screenings after production before languishing in various states of storage.
“I got them from a bunch of different sources,” said Uhle. “Mostly from filmmakers, but some of them were literally found in the attic of the Michigan Theater. A lot of the projectionists from U of M would also moonlight at the Michigan, and at a certain point people were stashing these prints up in the attic.”
Others came from faculty members who had purchased and preserved some of the better films that former students had made.
“I’ve had some strokes of good fortune. Alan Young from the film program has this wonderful office that’s like an archive of old equipment," Uhle said. "I noticed up on a shelf there were a few reels of 16mm film. They were student projects that they saved. Some of these films, my god, they were just amazing-looking films.”
Here are a few highlights:
GERARD MALANGA AS THE BARON VON RICHTHOFEN
New York poet, photographer, actor, and dancer Gerard Malanga served as one of the awards jurors for the 1967 Ann Arbor Film Festival, and to mark the occasion starred in this wistful fantasia directed by festival founder George Manupelli. At the time Malanga was an integral component of Andy Warhol’s Factory, working on the famous Screen Tests and cracking the whip during Velvet Underground gigs.
KICK OUT THE JAMS
All you long hairs in here tonight will surely be excited to see a 1969 promotional clip from A2’s own MC5, a collage of live performances filmed by Leni Sinclair and set to the band’s rallying cry “Kick Out the Jams.” Without the benefit of MTV, this proto-video’s reach was limited and has remained elusive aside from bootleg dupes and dodgy DVD extras, but its historical weight is incalculable.
GEMINI FIRE EXTENSION
This vaguely disquieting 1972 film involves lighter fluid, matches, and a human mouth. Filmmaker Andrew Lugg went on to a career in academic philosophy, while star John Orentlicher later became a video artist and professor, so they’re both OK.
John Nelson is now an Oscar-winning special effects wizard for films like Gladiator and Blade Runner 2049, but he too was part of Ann Arbor’s film community. One of his early experiments is 107 1/2, a dazzling attack of abstract analog light. While similar visuals can be generated today with digital ease, Nelson’s process back in 1979 involved crafting and assembling elaborate structures to refract light to his specifications—it’s as much a sculpture as a film.
Also from 1979 is this sly visual gag by filmmaker and performance artist Pat Oleszko, whose extravagantly costumed presence at early AAFF events was legendary. She’s an avatar for the wilder spirit of the early fests and an essential inclusion.
A bellicose trio of skateboard gangsters, as hard as Hells Angels and as close as the Diag, take a bite out of A2 punk culture. Filmmaker Danny Plotnick shot this on Super 8mm in 1986 and remained loyal to the cheap consumer-grade medium for years, eventually becoming its most celebrated proponent. His book Super 8: An Illustrated History notes that Ann Arbor hosted the nation’s first 8mm film festival in 1971, which thrived in the shadow of its successor for nearly two decades.
Fred Beldin is a writer and musician living in Ann Arbor. His work can be found at thesearetheendtimes.com.
“Experimental Shorts by Ann Arbor Filmmakers From the 1960s-80s" screens at 7 pm on Friday, December 1, in Askwith Auditorium, Lorch Hall, 611 Tappan Street. Ann Arbor. Free.