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:
Along the Way: Ypsi singer-songwriter Adam Plomaritas returns with his first new release in a decade
Adam Plomaritas’ new EP reflects on his personal journey of love and growth.
It provides the Ypsilanti pop-soul singer-songwriter with an emotional outlet for exploring the opportunities and challenges that come with being loved and loving others.
“These tunes are about finding a balance between wondering if you’re loved enough and if you’re loving enough in the best ways,” said Plomaritas about Old Time Love, his first collection of new songs since his 2013 album, The Hard Way. “As a husband, father, son, brother, and artist, it’s natural to seek approval, if not always healthy.”
Plomaritas beautifully captures that sentiment on Old Time Love, which features five infectious tracks filled with heartfelt vocals, vibrant horns, and upbeat pop-rock instrumentation.
“The EP is a little bit of introspection, even though the songs are generally light and fun in nature,” he said. “You seemed to have pierced the hard candy shell and gotten to the ooey, gooey chocolate inside—it’s about feeling like you’re enough.”
I recently spoke with Plomaritas about growing up in a musical family, solidifying his writing and recording skills through earlier releases, anticipating his first new release in 10 years, sharing select songs from Old Time Love, and preparing for a December 1 show at The Ark.
Toward the end of the 2004 smash “Time’s Up” by Jadakiss, a voice came on the radio as a familiar new beat was blended in:
“World-famous Prop Shop. DJ Chill Will in full effect. That’s how it goes down. Saturday nights, 9 to 12 o’clock Eastern Standard Time right here on WCBN-FM Ann Arbor. You can also check us out live on the world wide web at WCBN dot o-r-g and radio dot net backslash WCBN. It’s Saturday night, y’all. We got about an hour and a half left in the show. Sit back and relax, you know we got the classics coming. Prop Shop. Chill Will. Let’s get it.”
I was tuned into 88.3, the University of Michigan radio station, while driving down a darkened stretch of Island Lake Road outside of Dexter. It was a little past 10:30 pm on September 9, and as the DJ concluded his talk-up, I got goosebumps when the bassline thumped.
It was EPMD’s 1988 jam “You’re a Customer,” which has that “Fly Like an Eagle” sample from the Steve Miller Band, but the head-nodding beat is built off a drum sample and bass riff from ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses”—and it’s deep.
I leaned over and turned up the volume, feeling the vibration rattle my windows. The temp was hovering around 60 degrees, and with nobody else on the road, I opened the sunroof and rolled down the windows so the song could fly from my car and fill the late-summer air.
The Prop Shop has been rattling glass since 1988, and “Chill” Will Higgs has been at the helm for almost the entire time.
It’s also one of the oldest continually running hip-hop radio shows in the world.
The nearly 55-year-old Higgs mostly plays slappers from the late ‘80s through the mid-2010s, with occasional splashes of dancehall reggae—and virtually nothing from the post-trap world of hip-hop and its cymbal-driven songs with light snares. To quote A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 song “We Can Get Down,” The Prop Shop is all about artists who “with a kick, snare, kicks and high hat / [are] skilled in the trade of that old boom bap.”
For the commercial mixes Higgs sends out to radio clients such as KRYC and KPAT in California and WJZE in Toledo, Ohio, he does play contemporary rap.
But for The Prop Shop, it’s strictly classic hip-hop for the heads from the eras Higgs loves. Other artists I heard that night include Smif-N-Wessun, Run the Jewels, Jay-Z, The Diplomats, Baby Cham, Dr. Dre, Paul Wall, 50 Cent, and Jeru the Damaja.
The true window shakers. The essence of hip-hop. The real boom-bap.
Nawal Motawi's strong will and fierce individuality fire her acclaimed art-tiles studio in Ann Arbor
It took about a year and a half before Nawal Motawi dropped out of art school.
“I was really disgusted with what it looked like,” she says.
Motawi, who founded the renowned Motawi Tileworks in 1992, was enrolled at the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Abstract expressionism was in vogue and the emphasis in classes was less on how well each piece of art was made, Motawi says, than on how intricately they could be interpreted.
“What I felt like I learned in art school was that, basically, if you could tell a good story, then [your work] was [considered] good,” she says.
The Ann Arbor-based Motawi Tileworks, where Nawal Motawi continues to serve as owner and artistic director, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. To honor the occasion, the retrospective exhibit Motawi Tileworks: A Celebration of 30 Years is on display at the Rogel Cancer Center at the University of Michigan Hospital until December 23.
Motawi’s impatience with some of its more voluble aspects of art school came to a head after a particular sculpture class.
The Lord of the Screens: U-M professor Daniel Herbert chronicles the history of New Line Cinema in "Maverick Movies"
Late August at Hotel Ozone. Stunts. Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Critters. House Party. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Dumb and Dumber. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The Lord of the Rings. The Notebook.
These ﬁlms all have one thing in common: New Line Cinema.
University of Michigan ﬁlm and media professor Daniel Herbert chronicles and analyzes the history of the production studio and its ﬁlms in his new book, Maverick Movies: New Line Cinema and the Transformation of American Film.
Herbert initially launched his interest in New Line by teaching a course on the company. Back in 2010, the idea came from U-M librarian Philip Hallman, who also speculated about a possible book. The class evolved, and Herbert conducted extensive research that culminated in his book. He studied the Robert Shaye-New Line Cinema Papers and the Ira Deutchman Papers, which are in the Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers collection at the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Michigan Library. The closing lines of the book describe the origins of its title:
Chris DuPont didn’t go into making his new EP with a plan.
Instead, the Ypsilanti indie-folk singer-songwriter opted to write and record what came to him naturally.
“I just thought, ‘These songs are close to me.’ I didn’t have as much of an elevator pitch this time. It felt like a relief because sometimes I hide behind the elevator pitch. Sometimes I hide behind [this idea of], ‘Oh, this is what I’m about as an artist, and this is what I’m trying to say,’” said DuPont about Fragile Things.
“And instead, I just decided I’m gonna cut the crap and let people have it, and I hope they respond to it. If they don’t, then I will still know that those stories needed to get out of me for me to be OK.”
What resulted are five intimate songs about the trajectory of relationships and the vulnerability, honesty, and wisdom that come with them. On Fragile Things, DuPont shares those tales through emotive vocals, atmospheric folk-pop instrumentation, and ambient soundscapes.
“When I play them and share them, the consensus tends to be like, ‘Someone’s going to get something out of this,’” he said.
“When I play them live, they connect quickly—usually better than I expect. One thing I’m learning is that I think it’s just my job to create and not treat them like they belong to me as much.”
I recently spoke to DuPont about writing songs for his new EP, creating videos for the title track, recording the EP at multiple studios, preparing for a November 17 EP release show, and collaborating with Kylee Phillips on a duet EP.
The Eastern Michigan Department of Theatre is doing a special tour of the beloved Aesop fable Hare and Tortoise. Adapted by Brendan Murray, and directed by Emily Levickas, the show is meant for kids around 3-8 years old, but anyone is welcome to come join the fun.
“We are touring to 10 different local elementary schools and libraries. We'll stop at four Ann Arbor elementary schools, including Abbot, Eberwhite, Haisley, and Wines. We also have two public performances at Eastern Michigan University in the Sponberg Theatre on Friday, November 10 at 7 pm and Saturday, November 11 at 10 am,” said Levickas.
The Tortoise and the Hare are involved in a race. The Hare, being the obvious favorite to win, is arrogant and mocks his competitor, the Tortoise. While the Tortoise knows that hard work and determination are enough to be a winner. In Aesop’s version, the Hare takes a nap during the race, underestimating his opponent, and awakes to the Tortoise crossing the finish line. We get the popular saying “slow and steady wins the race” from this tale.
With this particular adaptation, Levickas said, “The show is based on the classic Aesop fable, but this adaptation by Brendan Murray explores themes of friendship, opposites, and the passage of time. In the introduction to the adaptation, Murray says "I hit on the idea of letting go and particularly letting go of comfortable, predictable certainties in favor of dangerous, but ultimately more fertile uncertainties. That is to say, a play about the terror and excitement of growing up.”
Kelli O’Hara is one of those versatile Broadway stars who shines in every show she’s in.
She originated the role of Clara in The Light in the Piazza; played feisty union leader Babe opposite Harry Connick Jr. in The Pajama Game; washed a man right out of her hair as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific; originated the role of Francesca in the stage musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County; and charmed her young charges, royalty, and audiences alike in The King and I, for which O’Hara won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
All the other O’Hara performances I mentioned earned her Tony nominations, too, plus two more besides: Kiss Me, Kate and Nice Work If You Can Get It. So to call O’Hara one of our era’s greatest leading ladies of the stage isn’t hyperbole; it’s just true.
And although O’Hara’s slated to star in the world premiere Broadway musical adaptation of Days of Wine and Roses, scheduled to start previews January 6, she’s also recently been performing concerts in different parts of the country, and she’s headed to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater on Sunday, November 12 at 7 pm.
In advance of the show, the native Oklahoman answered a few questions via email about what inspired the concert tour; her newest upcoming show; and her memories of working alongside Ann Arbor native Ashley Park in The King and I.
Russell Brakefield's New Poetry Collection, “My Modest Blindness,” Reflects on His Experiences With Keratoconus
Russell Brakefield’s new poetry collection, My Modest Blindness, is both “a telescope of loss” observing how a health condition called keratoconus robs the sense of sight and an exploration of this new state where there are “maybe a million small truths held just out of reach.” Brakefield’s poems take a “reluctant trowel” to excavate this experience and then “step into a life of shadow.” The poet sees familiar life receding and seeks “to reclaim another.”
The book contains six sections, starting with “Paper Boats” which launches the poet unwillingly down this path with keratoconus. The next two sections bear titles suggesting a clinical examination in “Pathology” and a historical approach to eye conditions in “A Brief History of Corrective Technology.” The fourth section called “Ancestors” looks backward and forward, including family, art, and references to film and other mediums. “In Between Worlds” is the penultimate section, in which the poet identifies lessons, such as humility, and in the “Coda,” begins “again to play.”
The poems themselves, however, remain untitled, which has the effect of immediate immersion into the poet’s dimming world. The exception to titles, though not exactly formatted like a traditional title, is in the intermittent series of one-stanza poems that consistently start with the word “Entry” and a number in the first line. “Entry #7” describes heirloom tomatoes like those pictured on the front cover:
A tag in the dirt tells
me the varietal is Indigo Apple, though all
year I’ve been calling them Bruises or Savory
Plums or Skyline Just Before Nightfall.
Judy Banker keeps things real on Bona Fide.
The Ann Arbor singer-songwriter explores genuine feelings of heartbreak, grief, and love on her new Americana album.
“One of my litmus tests for myself with a song is: Does it ring true to me? When I think of the vignette, the experience, or the feeling of that kind of relationship dynamic, does it say what I want to say?” said Banker, who’s a University of Michigan alumna and a therapist.
“That’s what I do with my songs—if it doesn’t say it strong enough or it doesn’t capture it quite right—there’s a certain tension that I want to be able to express. I feel like every single one of those songs is like my diary.”
On Bona Fide, Banker takes listeners on a personal journey that explores the cycle of relationships and the emotions that accompany them. The album’s rich harmonies and rootsy instrumentation bring those experiences to life across 11 heartfelt tracks.
“I’m a therapist by day, and on a big-picture level, my adult life has been dedicated to trying to help people to name, understand, and get the complexity of emotions … and that it’s important to work with them and embrace that,” Banker said.
“It’s a very selfish motive in the sense that these are my expressions and my songs, and I like them, but I just hope people say, ‘Oh, I’ve had that feeling.’”