Interview: Disney Animator Matthias Lechner

FILM & VIDEO INTERVIEW

Matthias Lechner meets a large group of mammals at the University of Michigan.

Matthias Lechner meets a large group of mammals at the University of Michigan. Photo by Patrick Dunn.

Budding animation enthusiasts at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University had the opportunity to learn from one of the best in their field this Thursday and Friday, as Disney animator Matthias Lechner gave free presentations to students at both schools. As art director of environments on Disney’s upcoming March release [http://movies.disney.com/zootopia|Zootopia], the German-born Lechner oversaw a staff of about 100 through a four-year process that equates to set design on a non-animated movie.

Zootopia not only features the largest digital environment yet created for Disney; it doubles the size of the virtual world created for previous record holder [b:1465415|Big Hero 6]. Creating that world entails an insanely detailed process, as every set and every tiny object is meticulously researched, sketched, and then realized as a 3-D model. In a slide presentation, Lechner walked students through the process of developing Zootopia’s “world built by animals, for animals,” sharing research, early designs, and finished scenes from the film. He interacted warmly with the student audience, projecting enthusiasm for working on his first Disney movie after a lifelong love of the studio’s work.

After his presentation at U-M, Lechner chatted with me about the experience of working with Disney for the first time, the very realistic research that goes into creating a fantasy world, and the big Disney project he’s got lined up next.

Q: You said that seeing The Jungle Book at age 6 was what interested you in animation in the first place. How did you feel when you finally got your first job at Disney?
A: You’d think that I’d be really happy. But I have to say that the first half-year I was extremely stressed. It was like, “What do they want from me that they can’t do themselves?” I guess it was just my style that worked really well, and [Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer] John Lasseter liked it, so they went with me. But everybody’s at the top of their game. I’m really used to working on movies that are middle-budget, so you try to make the best out of what you have. Suddenly you have all the time in the world, so you’ve got to come up with something that is worth all the time in the world.

Q: Disney’s such a big studio. How much do they try to impose a house style on what you’re doing?
A: That was surprising, that they don’t. I go in there and I was wondering, “What is it like? Is there a political agenda or anything like that?” But it’s not. The directors try to make it as good as we can, basically to please ourselves. If other people like it, that’s great. But nobody told me what to do or what not to do.

Q: What was John Lasseter like?
A: He’s a little bit of a celebrity at Disney because he’s the über-father, as we’d say in German. He’s a very emotional person, in a good way. He likes to hug. I was a little worried in the beginning because everybody really listens to what John wants, and that can be dangerous. But he wants the right things. Whenever he gave a note, it was the right note. So I don’t have a problem with that at all. That’s great. He’s been really good for Disney.

Q: In the animation that you enjoy, do you have a personal preference between cel animation and computer animation?
A: I used to. (Laughs) I come from cel animation, so for set design it had a lot of advantages. You would never have to wonder, “Can we afford this?” because everything’s just a drawing. You can draw whatever you want, and if it’s only for one scene it doesn’t matter. When you’re doing 3-D you have to plan: if we build a big set, can we use it in other scenes too? In the early days of 3-D there was a tendency of it not looking satisfying. Pixar did a very amazing job with their films, and yet they aged somewhat. I think now we’ve reached a point where Zootopia will not look old. It’ll just be a movie. In that respect, now I have a lot more possibilities, so I kind of like 3-D.

Q: It’s crazy looking back at Toy Story now, which looked so beautiful when it first came out, and seeing how much everything has changed since then.
A: Yeah. Toy Story is saved by the story, and that’s Pixar’s trick. If the story is entertaining then it doesn’t matter that much if it’s not perfect. In this movie we really went far out to fill it with detail and with love, basically to the top. We went as far as you can go right now.

Q: You mentioned bringing a NASA scientist in to consult about the “climate wall” [that separates Zootopia’s desert and tundra worlds, keeping the former hot and the latter cold]. Why put that level of scientific realism or scientific research into what is very much a fantasy creation?
A: Because they can. It’s one of John Lasseter’s little things, that he wants everything to be reasonable. Nothing is there just by coincidence. If you say, “This is the design I want,” you’d better find a good reason why you want this to be the design. Research is a big part of that. So if they offer to bring this guy in, of course we say, “Yeah. Let’s see if we can learn something from him.”

Q: You’ve mentioned how passionate you are about this movie. What do you like so much about it, besides the fact that you worked on it?
A: There’s that. And actually that doesn’t necessarily mean I like it, because I would see all the flaws. But I’m very happy with the sets. I’m happy with my part of the movie. Imagine that you think of something, or you dream something, and the best people in the world realize that for you. That’s an amazing experience. But what I really get a kick out of is the animation of the animals. We have dailies, and every day you see five or six scenes that come fresh from animation. It’s like Christmas for me. They’re so funny. There’s a scene where somebody crosses the road, which was not interesting in storyboard, and then the way they walk just makes it.

Q: How does it feel, after four years, to have this almost off your shoulders?
A: It is off my shoulders now. This [speaking engagement] is just reminiscing. It feels a little bit scary. I really got into it. I have to say, if it would have been only three and a half years, I would have said, “Ah, I can’t believe it’s over.” After four years I was like, “Okay. Done that.” It’s going to be hard for me to get as invested in the next project.

Q: Do you have your next project lined up?
A: Yes. Off the record–well, you can check if you can say it or not, but it’s [http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Wreck-It-Ralph-2-Happening-Get-Details-7…|Wreck-It Ralph 2].


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.

Review: GIG: The Art of Michigan Music

REVIEW VISUAL ART

GIG: The Art of Michigan Music at the Ann Arbor Art Center

GIG: The Art of Michigan Music at the Ann Arbor Art Center.

If you pay any attention to local music, you know the Michigan scene is rich with diversity and talent. But as the Ann Arbor Art Center’s new show GIG: The Art of Michigan Music points out, there’s also a wealth of outstanding visual art inspired by local music. Visual art–whether an album cover, a concert photograph, a gig poster, or a T-shirt design–has a mighty influence on the way we interact with a band. Often it’s a deciding factor in whether we pick up that album or check out that show in the first place. But it’s rare that we really think about, let alone actively pay tribute to, the folks who made that art. With about 150 works by 20 different local artists, GIG at least gets a good start on giving those individuals a well-deserved tip of the hat.

The show is cleverly laid out in that it groups works not by artist but by theme, subject matter, and color scheme. There are few enough artists in GIG that each could easily be segregated into their own little stretch of wall. But it’s more interesting to take in a wall of Alice Cooper- or Kid Rock-related art, more interesting to explore a section of comic book-inspired illustrations for bands. There’s a pleasant surprise in realizing a group of works are related not necessarily by their creators, but by aesthetic qualities–sometimes different takes on the same subject material.

Within those varied groupings, certain artists consistently stand out. Ann Arbor photographer Doug Coombe has possibly shot more local bands over the past couple of decades than any other photog in town. His works in GIG repeatedly distinguish themselves not only for the diversity of bands Coombe has photographed, but the incredible eye he has for capturing them in striking moments and settings. Feast your eyes on his gorgeous black-and-white shot of Flint R&B artist Tunde Olaniran and one of his backup dancers, both bending backwards toward each other in an ecstatic dance movement. Or marvel at Coombe’s shot of a very, very young White Stripes playing the Metro Times Blowout at Paycheck’s Lounge in 1999. (Jack White is clad in a puka-shell necklace that the dapperly-dressed rocker likely wouldn’t be caught dead in these days.) Coombe’s posed shots are great as well. See his shot of Ann Arbor-bred party rocker Andrew W.K. playfully stepping out of the shower at his childhood home, or Ann Arbor soul singer Mayer Hawthorne standing almost bashfully in front of Hitsville, U.S.A., in his first promo photos (Hawthorne’s suits and haircuts have gotten notably better since then). Coombe has chronicled the scene like no other, and done it in gorgeous style.

Another standout photographer in the show is Lansing’s Jena McShane. McShane has an outstanding command of color and negative space, both of which are on particular display in her photos of the Michigan Pink Floyd tribute band Echoes of Pink Floyd. McShane shoots Echoes saxophonist Chad Bement as a relatively small figure at the bottom of one composition, with a triangle of white fog and spotlight setting him majestically apart from the surrounding blackness. Or see one of McShane’s multiple photos of Alice Cooper, with the singer set strikingly apart from blue-green light in an almost magenta jacket as he wails into a microphone at the right edge of the frame. McShane has an incredible eye for the dramatic and it’s hard to avoid gravitating towards her shots.

In addition to these fine photogs, many of GIG’s artists do their work primarily from behind a drawing table or computer screen. Chief among these is Ann Arbor artist Jeremy Wheeler, who blends ‘60s psychedelic aesthetics, an ‘80s B-movie obsession, and the dynamic style of classic comic books into an eye-popping style all his own. Check out Wheeler’s pen-and-ink illustration for a poster promoting “a celebration of life” following the death of Gary Grimshaw (a Detroit music poster legend in his own right). Text describing the lineup undulates in stately black-and-white waves below a rendering of Grimshaw’s likeness. Or see the original pen-and-ink drawings and digitally colored finals for Wheeler’s comic strip describing his experience at the Stooges’ 2011 show at the Michigan Theater honoring their late guitarist Ron Asheton. Wheeler’s story is humorous, touching and brimming with energy, a truly unique tribute to Asheton, the Stooges, and the local scene done purely for the love of the art.

Blue Snaggletooth

Blue Snaggletooth Beyond Thule poster by Jeremy Wheeler.

Coombe, McShane, and Wheeler are just three highlights out of an exhibition packed with talent. Tony Fero and Robert “Nix” Nixon both provide some truly striking posters and album art, with B-movie and comic-book influences that echo Wheeler’s. Show curator Chuck Marshall presents several dynamic photos printed on canvas (make sure you seek out the show’s Easter egg: two boards full of Marshall’s lovely snapshots of a variety of local acts, tucked right around the corner from the main wall that introduces the show). Marshall noted that GIG is “just scratching the surface” as far as representing Michigan music-related visual art. And that’s the incredible thing about the rich variety of works in GIG: they comprise only a tiny sliver of a wild artistic world. It’s well worth taking a look at GIG in the setting of the Art Center, but the show is also likely to open attendees’ eyes a little more to the riotous never-ending art show taking place on telephone poles, venue walls, merch tables, and record store counters all over metro Detroit.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


"GIG: The Art of Michigan Music" will run through January 30, 2016, at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI. 48104.

Review: Mittenfest X – Night One

REVIEW MUSIC

Mittenfest X was December 29, 2015 to January 2, 2016

Mittenfest X was December 29, 2015 to January 2, 2016.

Midway through [http://www.mittenfest.org/|Mittenfest X]’s opening night on Tuesday, December 29 at [:http://eatypsi.com/|Bona Sera Café], singer-songwriter Fred Thomas asked how many of the evening’s attendees had also been present for the original Mittenfest nine years ago. Those who raised their hands were in the minority (this writer not among them, although he has been present for several Mittenfests since). But the number of original Mittenfest attendees was significant, and it contributed to a remarkable sense of reunion as Mittenfest kicked off for the year.

Of course, the annual music festival and fundraiser for [http://www.826michigan.org/|826michigan] always feels like something of a reunion in the first place. Year after year, it’s become the biggest annual gathering of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti bands (Ypsi’s wild and woolly Totally Awesome Fest is also a local band extravaganza, but the underground nature of that house-show-based event makes it smaller by necessity). This year’s Mittenfest featured 35 local bands before it wrapped up on January 2. Attendees of the original Mittenfest may have been a significant minority in Tuesday’s audience, but not onstage: opening night for Mittenfest X exclusively featured artists who also played Mittenfest’s inaugural one-day event in 2006.

And in so doing, it was difficult not to observe just how far some of them have come in the intervening near-decade. Thomas, a longtime Ypsi and Ann Arbor resident who recently moved to Montreal, called attention to that evolution most blatantly by repeating the exact same set he performed at the original Mittenfest. Thomas’ music has become both musically and lyrically more complex since 2006, as is clearly evident on his excellent recent release “All Are Saved,” but he took the stage alone with a single acoustic guitar. Although Thomas has certainly improved with age, the old stuff still worked and many in the audience sang along fervently.

Frontier Ruckus

Frontier Ruckus / Photo by Sean O'Kane

Several of the bands who returned to perform Tuesday night have grown their ranks–and their fanbases–considerably since the original Mittenfest. Ypsilanti folksinger Misty Lyn Bergeron, who played the original event simply as “Misty Lyn” with three accompanying musicians, appeared with her four-piece band The Big Beautiful. A 2006 [http://www.826michigan.org/mittenfest-an-abbreviated-list-of-thank-yous…|826michigan blog post] about the first Mittenfest noted that the “up-and-coming” Detroit “bluegrass” trio [a:Frontier Ruckus|Frontier Ruckus] “blew everyone away”; that group returned to Mittenfest X as a nationally recognized quartet whose sound has expanded far beyond basic bluegrass. Ypsilanti songwriter Matt Jones has made perhaps the most dramatic transformation since his first Mittenfest, when he performed with just violinist Carol Gray and cellist Colette Alexander. Gray and Alexander are now part of Jones’ seven-piece ensemble, The Reconstruction, which performed tunes from their lushly orchestrated, critically acclaimed 2014 album “The Deep Enders.”

If one particular element stood out Tuesday night among all the diverse groups who performed, it was incredibly disciplined musicianship. Ypsi expat Emily Jane Powers found a tight groove with backing musicians Alec Jensen, Eric Brummitt, and Christopher Gilbert, jamming on some lively instrumental breakdowns that required rather nimble work from the entire group. Jones, Gray, and Bergeron’s voices intertwined gorgeously as always in varying configurations with The Reconstruction and The Big Beautiful. And Frontier Ruckus proved just how well their group has jelled since the early days, with David Jones pulling off some particularly graceful banjo solos while Zach Nichols juggled a trumpet, melodica, euphonium, and musical saw.

The evening was not without its hitches. Powers blanked on the words to one of her songs, a Mittenfest banner fell down on Jones while he was drumming with Ypsi band Loose Teeth, and Bergeron was confined to a chair throughout her performance due to her ongoing recovery from a car accident. But personality and professionalism shone through. Powers picked up her tune, Jones grinned while keeping the beat with rope and pennants draped across his wrists, and Bergeron came across as strongly as ever.

Overall, there was a sense of quiet triumph to the night, a sense of modest celebration of how far all of these performers have come since they got Mittenfest started nine years ago. Mittenfest celebrates Michigan-made music–and when you look at the 28 bands performing over four days, the scope and talent of the local scene is remarkable. Of the 19 newcomers among this year’s lineup, it’s intriguing to wonder who might be present for a reunion show at Mittenfest XX–and just how far those groups might have come by that point. If anyone asks that year how many audience members were present for Mittenfest X, this writer will be proud to raise his hand.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


Mittenfest X was December 29, 2015 through January 2, 2016 at [:http://eatypsi.com/|Bona Sera Café] and is an annual music festival that serves as a fundraiser for 826michigan.

Preview: Ebird and Friends Holiday Show

PREVIEW MUSIC

Ebird and Santa

Ebird and Friends bring their Holiday Show to the Ark

The annual [http://www.theragbirds.com/holidayshow/|Ebird and Friends Holiday Show] may not have quite the legacy of the University Musical Society’s annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah. But in its eighth year the revue-style concert has quickly joined the ranks of Ann Arbor’s holiday traditions. The show’s moniker originates from the nickname of its creator, Ann Arbor musician Erin Zindle, best known as the frontwoman of folk group the [http://www.theragbirds.com|Ragbirds]. Zindle organized the first Ebird and Friends show in 2008 at Hartland Music Hall, and she has fronted the show’s backing band in each subsequent year. The show’s lineup features a diverse range of local artists presenting unique takes on classic Christmas songs, as well as original holiday tunes. This year local audiences will have three opportunities to see the show: Dec. 11 and 12 at the Ark, and Dec. 13 at Hartland High School’s auditorium. Pulp chatted with Zindle about the origins of Ebird and Friends, why Christmas music is so special to her and what we should be looking forward to at this year’s show.

Q: How did the first Ebird and Friends show come together?
A: My dad has lots of brothers and sisters, so the only time of year the whole family would gather consistently was on Christmas Eve. And my favorite part of that gathering was singing. We would do food and gifts and I would kind of rush through that stuff because I really, honestly, even just as a young child, just was so excited about singing in harmony together with my family. It was such a special thing to me growing up, and as I got older we just stopped doing that. I realized how much that impacted me as a young musician. It was the first time I acknowledged music as a community experience–as a community-building experience, even, and I just really longed for that. I live far away from my family now, but I have this wonderful musical family in Michigan, in Ann Arbor. It was a pretty natural extension of that to try to start that here. The first year I just called all my musician friends and just was like, “We all love each other and all say how much we want to band together. Well, let’s make it happen.”

Q: How do you select the artists for the show? Do you try to balance various genres or musical styles, or is it mostly just based on bringing in as many folks as are available?
A: It’s a really selective process. There are so many amazing artists that I honestly call friends and just love and respect so much in this area that there’s too many to pick from. I always have a way bigger list to start with than who I can actually involve in the show. It’s a really hard choice. But I usually don’t have the same artists more than two years in the show, just to keep changing it up. I try to find somebody who can hold down the funk and somebody who’s got old-timey-style folk and somebody who’s a little more jazzy and somebody who’s just a local dynamo that can blow everybody away. So I’ve got certain spots I’m trying to fill, in a way.

Q: How do you go about rehearsing for something like this? Do you make time when you can to rehearse with each act individually, or do you usually pull the whole group together to run through it?
A: We have a horn sectional and a string sectional. The harmony girls will get together and work out their parts individually. We’ll do one rehearsal with just the house band, and then we all get together just once. So many of the musicians have just that one rehearsal, where we’re just jumping in and trying to get through everything in one night. It’s a marathon rehearsal and it’s a big party and it’s awesome.

Q: Christmas music can get kind of a bad rap, but such a diverse range of artists from around our community seem to really embrace it in this show. What do you enjoy about performing Christmas music and why do you think it holds such an appeal for your fellow performers in this show?
A: I think that many of the songs have a message of getting together and peace on earth and celebrating joy and light and happiness. There’s a positive message to most Christmas songs, even though some are totally cheesy about that. There’s something about having a body of work in our collective culture that we all know. We can all sing “Jingle Bells” together. We all know it, no matter where we grew up or how we were raised or what our culture is, even our religion. We all know it. And I just think it’s a good starting place as far as getting artists to come together and be creative around a theme. It’s really a perfect choice in that way.

Q: What are you particularly excited about with regards to this year’s show?
A: The Accidentals have a brand-new original tune they’re going to be debuting. Olivia Millerschin is a really cool, fresh, young artist on the scene. She was one of my songwriting students up at Interlochen and she’s really been making waves with her career. I’m excited to have her as part of the show this year, also doing an original song. I could go on and on because there’s a lot of cool things in store, but I don’t want to give it away.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


Ebird and Friends will be at the Ark on Friday, December 11th and Saturday, December 12th – Doors 7:30 pm, Show at 8:00 pm. Sunday, December 13th at the Hartland High School Auditorium – Doors 3:30 pm, Show at 4:00 pm. Tickets are $20. Information about where to purchase tickets can be found on the Ragbird's site.

Review: Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien Fall 2015 Chinese Film Festival

REVIEW PREVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Dust in the Wind, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, kicked off the Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien Fall 2015 Chinese Film Festival

Dust in the Wind, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, kicked off the "Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien Fall 2015 Chinese Film Festival"

[a:Hou, Hsiao-hsien|Hou Hsiao-hsien’s] film Dust In the Wind opens with the puzzling image of a tiny rectangular shape, its top rounded, hovering against a black background. It appears at first to be an animated image, crudely rendered given the film’s 1986 release date. But it quickly becomes clear that we are swiftly traveling towards the image, rather than it floating towards us, and that it’s not a man-made drawing but a depiction of natural splendor. The shape is the light at the end of a pitch-black train tunnel, and the camera swiftly explodes out of the passage to reveal the stunning greens of the lush forest beyond.

This striking opening shot may be the most obvious way Taiwanese director Hou leads us to find beauty in seemingly mundane moments in Dust In the Wind, but it’s certainly not the last. The film screened Monday at the Michigan Theater to kick off “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien,” a series of free screenings running through Nov. 11. The plot of Dust In the Wind is simple, almost pedestrian: a young couple, Ah-yuan (Wang Chien-wen) and Ah-yun (Xin Shufen), seek to escape their impoverished life in a Taiwanese mining town. Mining life has already left Ah-Yuan’s father injured and at the mercy of greedy pharmaceutical providers. Ah-yuan and Ah-yun travel to Taipei, where they take tedious jobs–he as a print shop assistant, she as a seamstress–to send money home and to fund their own night school and eventual wedding. They make a few friends and go out to drink and socialize when they can. Hardly leading a robust life to begin with, Ah-yuan and Ah-yun face their greatest challenge yet when the draft board calls Ah-yuan up for a lengthy tour of military service.

Hou is noted as a major voice in the Taiwanese New Wave cinema of the ‘80s, which emphasized realistic stories of everyday life in Taiwan. As such, having noted the rather bleak circumstances of Ah-yuan and Ah-yun’s lives and their tenuous young love, it’s not too difficult to predict the fate that will befall their relationship when Ah-yuan departs for the military. But Hou finds many a moment of warmth, beauty and wisdom in what could be a much more harrowing tale. He repeatedly frames the exterior of Ah-yuan’s family home in an extreme wide shot, encouraging us to appreciate not only the colorful hustle and bustle on the steps of the home but also the action that takes place in the courtyard beyond. There’s even gentle humor in the tale, as when Ah-yuan’s father accidentally lights a firecracker rather than a candle in the dark. (Ah-yuan’s grandfather, beautifully played by Li Tian-lu, is a repeated source of both sly humor and somewhat dark wisdom.) Hou repeatedly directs us toward the kindness and love in this dark story, from family members comfortably sharing food and drink to Ah-yun quietly nursing Ah-yuan back to health during a bout of bronchitis.

As the title of the film would suggest, the characters seem battered by life’s trials, cast adrift in an uncaring world they have little ability to fully comprehend, let alone control. But in the many warmer moments Hou creates here, he also seems to suggest that the characters are equally ignorant of some of the gifts that are present in their lives. It seems no mistake that Hou follows his spectacular opening POV shot from the train with a shot of Ah-yun and Ah-yuan onboard the vehicle, complacently reading, paying no attention to the spectacular scenery we’ve just been treated to. In a simple but metaphor-laden exchange between Ah-yuan and his grandfather at the film’s end, it’s difficult to tell just how much our characters’ eyes have really been opened. But Hou has certainly opened our eyes to some of the beauty in these difficult lives, and perhaps encouraged us to think differently about our own lives as well.

The “Also Like Life” series will continue through Nov. 11 with the following free screenings at the Michigan Theater:

  • Flowers of Shanghai screens Nov. 10 at 6 pm. Multiple prominent film critics have named this elegant, slow-paced 1998 film following the courtesans and patrons in four different brothels as one of the best movies of the ‘90s. The film stars Tony Leung, well-known for his appearances in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution.
  • Good Men, Good Women screens Nov. 11 at 5 pm. This 1995 release concludes a trilogy of historical films by Hou, preceded by 1989’s A City of Sadness and 1993’s The Puppetmaster. The story of a Taiwanese couple who journey to the Chinese mainland to fight the Japanese during the 1940s is told as a film within a film about an actress who is preparing to play the role of one of the main characters.
  • [b:1305291|Millennium Mambo] screens Nov. 11 at 7 pm. The 2001 film follows a young woman’s work life and romantic entanglements at the beginning of the new millennium. Although Hou uses vibrant cinematography and techno music in his storytelling, his portrait of recent youth culture is dark and somewhat despairing.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


The “Also Like Life” series will continue through Nov. 11 with the following free screenings at the Michigan Theater: Flowers of Shanghai on Nov. 10 at 6 pm; Good Men, Good Women on Nov. 11 at 5 pm; and Millennium Mambo on Nov. 11 at 7 pm. More information can be found on the University of Michigan Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Richard H. Rogel Center for Chinese Studies page.

Review: POP•X

REVIEW VISUAL ART

Welcome to POP•X chalk art

Welcome to POP•X / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

At the entrance to a 10’ x 10’ pavilion made of plywood and corrugated plastic at the edge of Liberty Plaza, I feel like I’m peering into some sort of mystical forest. Past the artificial palm fronds that frame the doorway, there are tall, mossy, finger-like artificial rocks awash in gentle blue light. Cottony clouds hang from the ceiling and recorded sounds of wind and woodland activity play softly.

A sweatshirt-clad, middle-aged man with a scraggly beard steps up behind me and I turn around. His expression is puzzled.

“Is there weed in there or something?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “It’s an art installation.”

The pavilion containing Ann Arbor artist [http://www.nicholaszagar.com|Nick Zagar’s] forest landscape is one of eight pop-up structures comprising the Ann Arbor Art Center’s new [http://popxannarbor.com/|POP•X exhibition] in Liberty Plaza. Even at a cordoned-off POP•X preview event, it’s impossible not to confront the odd dichotomy between the plaza’s typical usage and the purpose it will take on for the next 10 days. Ann Arborites know the downtown park as a regular hangout for the homeless, the subject of repeated city council debate. Through October 24, however, it will be the site for POP•X, which organizers describe as the first step in a larger mission to create more publicly accessible art experiences in the Ann Arbor community.

A massive supper table by Joe Levickas & Naturescape by Nick Zagar

A massive supper table by Joe Levickas // Naturescape by Nick Zagar / Photos by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

All eight pavilions look essentially the same from the outside: unfinished wooden doorways at the front and back, with white silhouettes of trees crisscrossing the transparent sides and roofs. Inside, each pavilion is unique, tailored to the eccentricities of the artist or group who worked on it. Where Zagar fills his entire pavilion with his fantasy naturescape, artist [http://www.joelevickas.com|Joe Levickas’] pavilion contains just a narrow band of illustrations of cartoon figures sitting down to a dinner party, like a surrealistic 50-person “Last Supper” stretching across three walls.

However, the most interesting pavilions at POP•X are those that directly engage with Liberty Plaza’s usual population and associated issues of economic disparity. [http://brendaoelbaum.me|Brenda Oelbaum’s] somber installation uses black curtains to block out the light that streams into most POP•X pavilions, with a large mural inside presenting a quote Oelbaum’s grandmother adapted from Herodotus: “If we all put our troubles in bags and took them to the market to exchange them, upon seeing the problems of others we would gladly go home with our own.” Visitors are encouraged to write down their problems and leave them anonymously in a pile of small black pouches. Visitors may then read others’ problems and “purchase” them for a donation to the Ann Arbor Community Center or Mercy House, both charities supporting Ann Arbor’s hungry and homeless.

Just across from Oelbaum’s installation is a pavilion designed by the nonprofit [http://www.girlsgroup.org|Girls Group], which focuses on empowering young Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti women to stay in high school or college and avoid teen drug use and pregnancy. The group’s young participants have contributed a variety of works based on the concept of “home.” The most powerful work in the pavilion is a looping video of Dea Chappell, a fiery young Ann Arbor poet and high school junior, reading her poetry. “Welcome to black America,” Chappell almost sobs. “I can’t breathe…but black lives matter, right?” Standing by her untitled collage addressing themes of black sisterhood and protest, 17-year-old Skyline High School student Alexandra Cash tells me living in Ann Arbor has made her more aware of her “blackness.” “You can be really smart and get really good grades but still be on the lower end of the white kids,” Cash says.

Problem exchange by Brenda Oelbaum & Art on the concept of  home by young local artists in the Girls Group pavilion

Problem exchange by Brenda Oelbaum // Art on the concept of home by young artists in the Girls Group pavilion / Photos by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

Ypsilanti artist [http://chin-azzaro.com|Nick Azzaro’s] pavilion provides POP•X’s most direct statement on Liberty Plaza’s usual inhabitants, and one of the most powerful statements in the show overall. At the center of Azzaro’s installation is “The Statue of Liberty Plaza,” a figure built from hundreds of tiny plastic army men and other military-related toys, posed in the form of Lady Liberty. The figure wears torn jeans, stuffed with newspaper and corrugated cardboard. In one hand it holds a copy of Groundcover News, in the other a sign reading “HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” On the walls surrounding the statue are professional portraits of individuals Azzaro met while spending an average, non-POP•X day in Liberty Plaza. The portraits are larger than life and most of the subjects grin broadly as they look directly into the camera, a white background behind them. Azzaro’s work encourages visitors to gaze upon the “huddled masses” we might otherwise ignore as we walk past Liberty Plaza, and to find a welcoming expression and a human story there.

Adjacent Azzaro’s pavilion is a more traditional representation of Ann Arbor’s art establishment. The [http://www.annarborwomenartists.org|Ann Arbor Women Artists’] pavilion, a collaboration between 30 of the 64-year-old organization’s members, is a delightful Art Nouveau-inspired outdoor picnic scene. Ruffled tissue-paper grass surrounds a painted pathway through the pavilion, suggesting a river. Plates are heaped with clay and Styrofoam fruits and vegetables, and dragonflies made of wire and tissue paper float overhead. It’s lavish, lovely and certainly more focused on craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty than political commentary.

But that’s part of why POP•X works so well. I was initially unsettled by the idea of an art show displacing Ann Arbor’s less fortunate for 10 days. But while POP•X’s organizers set out to bring art to the whole community, they’ve achieved something even higher: bringing our community face to face with itself. POP•X doesn’t whitewash Liberty Plaza for the enjoyment of some artistic elite, nor does it shut out more traditional voices from our local art scene. It forces anyone who explores all eight pavilions to confront diverse aspects of a complex town that is too often described in generalizations. Here, a Liberty Plaza regular may wander through the Women Artists’ picnic wonderland, or one of the well-dressed socialites I rubbed shoulders with at the preview event may take a moment to look into the eyes or listen to the words of Ann Arborites considerably less fortunate than him or herself. POP•X is many things: fun, sobering, beautiful, contemplative. But most importantly it’s responsible and respectful to the full scope of the community it represents.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


POP•X runs Thursday, October 15 – Saturday, October 14, 2015 from 10am to 8pm at Liberty Plaza Park, 255 East Liberty St., Ann Arbor. To learn more visit [http://popxannarbor.com/|popxannarbor.com] or the [https://www.facebook.com/events/1690022531216784/|POP•X Facebook event page]. POP•X is free and open to the public.