Sing Us a Song: The piano men and women of "Duelers" star in a new Michigan-produced film with deep local connections
Duelers Piano Bar is the home of five young musicians who trade keyboard licks and share solace, shots, and sounds on a nightly basis. But the venue that offers them a routine and respite from problems is about to be sold by a money-hungry owner, which will turn their lives upside down.
This is the plot of Duelers, a new movie made by a group of multi-talented Michigan creatives. Writer/composer/co-star Drew De Four, producer / cinematographer Danny Mooney, and their cast of real-life performers straddle the line between a concert film and backstage drama. The film was shot at the now-closed J.D.'s Key Club piano bar in Pontiac, Michigan, taking 12 days over two weeks.
Like his co-stars, De Four is a real dueling pianist, and his talents have taken him around the globe. During shooting, he lived with the actors who play Tyler (Tom McGovern), Jane (Elisa Carlson), Skip (Danny Korzelius), and Bethany (Shelby Winfrey), the multi-talented musicians who share the stage nightly with Drew (De Four) at the fictional Duelers Piano Bar.
De Four, 40, has been playing in piano bars since he was 19. He was a student at Eastern Michigan University when he saw an ad for Pub 13, a dueling pianos bar in Ypsilanti.
"I took five years of piano lessons from ages 7 to 12," De Four says. "From 12 to 18, I taught myself piano, guitar, bass, mandolin—a little bit of drums. When I was 19 I went to Eastern for a year to study piano, and my professor told me I should not be studying classical piano because when I came back from the piano bars asking, 'How do I do stride piano?' He said, 'You could teach me. You seem to know exactly what you want to do. We're studying Rachmaninoff and Liszt: That's not what you're meant for.'"
Uhle hosted a panel at AAFF, "Cinema Guild and Campus Film Societies: Their History and Legacy," a topic covered in the book, documenting the groups who brought cutting-edge films to the University of Michigan—and the controversies that sometimes ensued.
We interviewed Uhle about the film societies in a preview article for this panel discussion—check it out here—which included former U-M film society members Hugh Cohen, Dave DeVarti, Philip Hallman, and Anne Moray.
You can now view the panel discussion in the video above.
When Martin Thoburn and Donald Harrison launched the Independent Film Festival Ypsilanti (iFFY) in 2020, they offered cinema fans socially distanced, drive-in-style screenings and a momentary reprieve from the pandemic, which had shuttered movie theaters across the country.
Three years later—and one year after finding a new home at the Riverside Arts Center—iFFY is solidifying its spot on the local film scene with an ambitious scope and schedule, running April 19-23.
"There's also double the amount of programming. An extra day-and-a-half," said Micah Vanderhoof, iFFY operations manager and a University of Michigan alum with a bachelor's degree in screen arts and cultures who previously worked as a programmer for the Portland International Film Festival.
"Michigan-ish," a competitive program of a dozen short films produced in and around the region, kicks off the fest on Wednesday, April 19 at 7:30 pm, followed by an after-party at Ziggy's featuring DJ sets and decorations by House of Jealous Lovers.
The Ann Arbor Film Fest (AAFF) is always a tornado of activity and it's sometimes hard to keep up—not just with all the great events and screenings but also the media coverage.
We've published three articles highlighting the 61st edition of this Ann Arbor institution, which runs March 21-26 in person and through March 29 online, and fellow media outlets have also been on the case. Plus, AAFF published a wonderful series of video interviews with several directors whose films will be shown.
Below is a survey of all the coverage we've found for the 2023 film fest, along with links to AAFF's most pertinent schedules.
The Ann Arbor Film Festival celebrates collaboration. Sure, there are some movie mavericks who do everything themselves when creating a film, but it's usually a talented group of people combining their resources to create something special.
Chien-An Yuan lives for collabs.
The Ann Arbor polymath is capable of making films, photography, art, and music all on his own—and he has many times—but he prefers to work with others to bring creations to life.
And there are so, so many creations in Yuan's world.
Yuan is a co-founder of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) performance troupe IS/LAND, whose latest work, TETRA, will be performed at the Ann Arbor Art Center (A2AC), April 15-16 and 22-23. Featuring dancers J Amber Kao, Olivia Lemmenes, S Jean Lee, and Yuan on sound design, TETRA is all about transformation: "Forming rolls of colorful Hanji mulberry paper into shapes and pathways of wisdom, knowledge, and healing, the movement of the dancers offer improvised ‘rituals’ as communal gestures of healing and transmutation, ultimately creating a restorative healing space for both the audience and performers," writes Yuan.
IS/LAND then returns to the Ann Arbor District Library on May 20 for KIZUNA TREE, an interactive installation and performance. The event combines an Ikebana tree designed by Celeste Shimoura Goedert, sound recordings from the collaborative series AAPI Stories, which was co-developed by Zosette Guir of Detroit Public Television and journalist Dorothy Hernandez as a response to the Atlanta spa shootings in 2021, and movement, visuals, and readings by IS/LAND. "KIZUNA TREE is an exploration of communal healing for AAPI peoples, across generations, communities, and ethnicities," writes Yuan.
More immediately, Yuan has a couple of projects at the Ann Arbor Art Center—both collaborative, of course.
He worked with artist Thea Augustina Eck to create a string installation in the rear staircase of A2AC, using colored yarn to create a web of lines that fan out from single sources, only interacting in separated layers when looking down or up the length of the well.
The fiber art will still be at A2AC when Yuan, using an iPad, and percussionist Jonathan Barahal Taylor improvise a score to Mattieu Hallé's May Waves Rise From Its Floor on Thursday, March 23, as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Based in Ottowa, Canada, Hallé will be in Ann Arbor to screen the 16mm film of an abstract ocean landscape. He'll use a modified projector with a candle as its light source; the flame is moved and modified by Hallé's breathing and handheld pieces of broken crystal. As the shadows and light move and morph, Yuan and Taylor will react musically in real-time, making every screening of May Waves into a singular experience.
I spoke to Yuan about his current slate of artistic projects, and he gave us an update on some music he's preparing to release on his experimental record label, 1473.
A Portrait Study: Ann Arbor Film Festival highlights the Black, queer, experimental cinema of Edward Owens
Edward Owens' story may have been lost to history were it not for film programmer, writer, and Bard College professor Ed Halter.
An obscure figure from one of cinema's most elusive realms, Owens was a Black, queer, experimental filmmaker from Chicago whose career was cut tragically short.
In 2009, intrigued by an entry in the Film-Maker's Co-Op catalog about the experimental short Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, Halter reached out to Owens decades after he left his life in filmmaking behind. Their conversations brought newfound context to Owens' artistic vision, which helped amplify the voice of an artist whose compelling story was at risk of being relegated to obscurity.
Owens' life and limited collection of works is the subject of the 61st Ann Arbor Film Festival (AAFF) program "Remembrance/Vacancy: The Films of Edward Owens" at the State Theatre on Thursday, March 23, 7 pm.
The event offers audiences the rare opportunity of seeing three Owens films back to back: Remembrance: A Portrait Study (1967, 6 min.), Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1966, 6 min.), and Tomorrow's Promise (1967, 45 min.).
Following the screenings is a conversation between Emily Martin, who programmed the event, and Jessica Ruffin, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Film, Television, and Media.
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.
Keys to the Past: Ann Arbor’s Legacy of Theater Organs Creates Timeless Moviegoing Experience for Patrons
It was New Year’s Eve 2011 and we wanted a low-key way to celebrate.
The theater’s Screening Room featured a couple of showings, and we opted for the 9 pm show. That way, we could see the film and still get home to watch the Times Square ball drop at midnight on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
When we arrived at the theater, we saw a musician playing a Hammond organ about 20 minutes before The Artist started.
The organist provided pre-show entertainment and didn’t accompany The Artist during its screening, but his performance sparked our curiosity about the instrument, including the 1927 Barton pipe organ in the Michigan’s Main Auditorium.
For us, the theater organ served as a brief musical portal to the past, recalling a bygone era when it accompanied silent films at movie palaces from the 1900s to the 1920s.
Over the years, we’ve enjoyed seeing organists perform on Barton pipe organs at the Michigan Theater—the only one left in Ann Arbor—and Detroit’s Redford Theatre. Those beautiful theater organs offered warm welcomes as we took our seats to watch different films.
Nearly a decade later, I wanted to learn more about local theater organs, the theaters that housed them, and the organists who play them.
EMU's "King Kong at Ninety: Visualization in the Art of Stop-Motion Animation" celebrates the creativity behind the film that helped launch the Creature Feature
While spending an hour-plus perusing Eastern Michigan University’s exhibit King Kong at Ninety: Visualization in the Art of Stop-Motion Animation, I was struck by how, in some ways, it’s probably harder for young film buffs to stumble upon the old classics.
Admittedly, nearly all movies that survived are available to us at any moment now, but that tsunami of choices also means viewers must specifically seek out a film like King Kong (1933) instead of merely tumbling out of bed before your parents get up on a Sunday morning, turning on the TV, and sampling that week’s “Creature Feature”—a genre largely spawned by the runaway blockbuster success of King Kong.
Even so, as demonstrated by King Kong at Ninety—on display at EMU's University Gallery through February 23—theatrical rereleases of the film served this same purpose for years, offering moviegoers multiple opportunities to experience what were, at the time, cutting edge, eye-popping visual effects. (It’s interesting to note how the poster art changed with each release, as well as how it was visually marketed in other countries.)
Plus, EMU’s exhibit offers up Depression-era magazine features dedicated to revealing how these cinematic images were achieved—though more of these articles trafficked in shoddy guesswork (i.e., an actor in a gorilla suit) than in accurate, researched reporting.
But even these misinformed attempts hint at the widespread sense of wonder and curiosity inspired by King Kong. So how did this seminal movie come to be made?
Selina Thompson's “salt: dispersed” is a powerful document of her monologue retracing the transatlantic slave route forced on her ancestors
In 2016, Selina Thompson, an interdisciplinary artist based in Birmingham, England, went on a journey to retrace the path of her ancestors. That path was that of the transatlantic slave trade.
The writer and performer recounts her trip in salt, a monologue she first performed in 2017, and now in salt: dispersed, the film adaptation of her stage presentation. UMS is streaming the film for free through February 13 as part of its Renegade Festival's No Safety Net series, which focuses on theater and art installations.
Thompson's mission started in the U.K., boarding a cargo ship with another Black female artist, and discovering a story so powerful it takes the air out of your lungs.