Supple Wrists: Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, preps its quarterly showcase
This story was originally published on April 5, 2017.
Strolling the aisles at Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, is like talking a walk in time. As cascades of colorful flashing lights fire up your synapses, the frantic medley of familiar themes, playful taunts, and ringing bells transport you to a place where all that matters is keeping that shiny metal ball from slipping between your flippers.
Turn left, and perhaps you'll find yourself standing in front of a vintage game from the 1950s. Or round the corner and prepare to do battle with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on Stern's luminous new "Ghostbusters" machine. Stick around long enough, and eventually you'll cross paths with Clay Harrell, the gruff yet not-unapproachable proprietor of this wedge-head wonderland.
It was a chilly Wednesday night in March when Harrell welcomed me into Vintage Flipper World to talk about his passion for pinball and the fast-approaching Michigan Pinball Showcase the first weekend of May. From Friday May 5 through Sunday, May 7, pinball fanatics from across the country and around the world will descend on this secluded gamer's paradise to test their skills on over 350 of the best fully functioning machines around.
When Chris "Box" Taylor says "fuzz" is a "feeling," he's not being emo. He means it quite literally.
Fortunately for music lovers, he's not selfish with the joyous sounds of distortion.
If you live in Ann Arbor and you're into rock 'n' roll, you've likely crossed paths with Taylor, either by attending his annual Fuzz Fest, the long-running dance party The Bang!, or having witnessed one of his many bands tear up the stage at Woodruff's, The Blind Pig, or the now-defunct Elbow Room in Ypsi. Whether opening the blast doors with longtime cosmic rockers Mazinga, transporting you to "Sleeping Mountain" with his band Blue Snaggletooth, or simply whipping up a guitar frenzy as a member of Scott Morgan's Powertrane, Taylor carries that fuzzy feeling with him everywhere he plays.
I distinctly remember walking into Woodruff's in Ypsilanti the opening night of the first Fuzz Fest in 2014. The moment I stepped over the threshold and into the bar, each throbbing bass note rattled my marrow, and each kick of the drum was like a blow to the chest. The music was alive, and neither the thick boots on my feet nor the sturdy jacket on my shoulders could shield me from the penetrating soundwaves.
Meanwhile, as the four members of Bison Machine blasted away at their instruments in a blur of sonic fury, the psychedelic light show above turned my gray matter every shade of the rainbow.
This was an all-out assault on the senses, and it was glorious.
On June 1-3, Fuzz Fest 4 will take over The Blind Pig. With 33 bands preparing to descend upon Ann Arbor, with The Overhead Army on psychedelic light duties, it's a damn shame the students will miss out on what promises to be the kick-off event of the summer.
Fortunately for Pulp readers, Taylor was kind enough to take some time out from organizing this massive undertaking to give us a sneak preview of what we can expect once the amps are stacked, and the bands hit the stage.
It was a sunny afternoon in late April, and as I sat across from Jeff Daniels in the room above his Chelsea recording studio, the sounds of a band practicing below drifted up the stairs, permeating the room with the intoxicating sounds of a particularly tight jam session. (Perhaps it was son Ben's band?)
Daniels is a busy man, but on this day he looked relaxed. He just wrapped-up a series of three sold-out, word-of-mouth concerts at the Chelsea Alehouse, each one drawing a bigger crowd than the last. For loyal patrons of the popular Chelsea watering hole, it was an irresistible opportunity to experience another side of a renowned local talent in a cozy, intimate setting.
For those unfamiliar with the musical side of Daniels' career, there's a distinctive streak of Americana to it -- or as he put in on that crowded Saturday night, "Whatever it is that I do up here." A self-taught musician with a playful sense of humor on stage, the actor-cum-musician fuses folk, blues, and country with a talent for telling particularly vivid, often hilarious, tales.
Though his formidable guitar skills give him the distinction of being a musician, his well-honed talent for holding an audience rapt reveals him to be -- as his other endeavors on stage and screen suggest -- a natural-born storyteller.
As is the case with his play and film Escanaba in da Moonlight, there's an unmistakable aspect of cultural preservation to Daniels' music. Songs like "Big Bay Shuffle" and "Michigan, My Michigan" display a deep-rooted desire share his personal experiences with the world at large.
Meanwhile, his distinctive fingerpicking style -- perfected with years of practice and occasional lessons from talented friends like Keb' Mo' -- can range from delicate and unobtrusive in his more introspective songs, to outright rollicking when he decides the room could use a bit more energy.
Though focused intently on editing a video when I first arrived, Daniels was quick to change gears once we sat on opposite ends of his fluffy studio couch. With the songs from the Saturday night show still ringing in my head, I was particularly eager to learn what inspires the esteemed actor as a musician and discover his secrets for engaging an audience when there's no safety net or script to follow.
The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival gets underway Tuesday, March 21, and as artists and film lovers from around the globe prepare to descend upon the Michigan Theater for six days of mind-expanding cinema, Executive Director Leslie Raymond is on a mission to take the country's longest-running avant-garde and experimental film festival back to its all-inclusive roots.
Founded by George Manupelli in 1963, the AAFF has seen its share of shake-ups over the course of the past decade. From the AAFF v. State of Michigan lawsuit that resulted in part from the controversy that erupted over Crispin Glover's award-winning 2005 feature What Is It? to the departure of Program Director David Dinnell last year, Raymond no-doubt had her work cut out for her when she stepped into this pivotal role.
Fortunately for filmmakers and audiences alike, Raymond was no stranger to either the festival or Manupelli's original vision for it as a place where all voices and perspectives are celebrated. Twenty-five years ago, Raymond began her decades-long relationship with the AAFF as an intern under Program Director Vicki Honeyman, whose enduring 14-year run with the festival was longest anyone has served in such capacity other than the founder.
To take the reigns of a festival as celebrated and prestigious as the AAFF requires genuine dedication, and as anyone familiar with Raymond's impassioned 2009 blog post lamenting the "specialized, themed-programming" that had become a primary focus of the festival during that era, there was little question as to where her loyalties lied.
Flash forward eight years, and Raymond is now in the unique position of being able to turn those criticisms into concrete action. Raymond's deep respect for Manupelli's original vision is evident when listening to her speak about her late friend and the festival he conceived, and together with new Associate Director of Programs Katie McGowan, the executive director is on a mission to steer this ship back on course.
With Ann Arbor still recovering from the devastating windstorm dubbed the "largest combined statewide event in history" by Gov. Rick Snyder less than a week before the Opening Night Reception, Raymond was kind enough to take the time out from her hectic schedule to discuss these issues and more with Pulp.
It's the last Tuesday in February at Alley Bar, and Mostly Functional Humans co-hosts Rich Retyi and Andrew Dooley are sitting in a booth, preparing for their live podcast. Friends and fans pour through the doors in a steady stream, and the upscale dive bar takes on a party atmosphere. Back in the booth, the two co-hosts recall the origins of Mostly Functional Humans. Canadian transplant Retyi was working at MLive when he struck up a rapport with Plymouth native Dooley. Almost immediately, Dooley recognized they were on the same intellectual and comic rhythms, and after conceiving the podcast in this very bar, decided to take it into the studio. As luck would have it, the Ann Arbor District Library was more than happy to accommodate by recording Mostly Functional Humans in its podcasting studio. This is where Matt Dubay -- aka Engineer Matt -- enters the picture. The library’s production supervisor was tasked with recording the Mostly Functional Humans podcast. In a way, most of what you need to know about the tone of the Mostly Functional Humans podcast can be gleaned by noting that the two current sponsors are Alley Bar and Literati Bookstore. Literate yet far from pretentious, it appeals to the entire spectrum of listeners in the town that seems to value an IPA nearly as much as a Ph.D.
When Rik Cordero, a talented young filmmaker with a passion for science fiction, had the inspiration to work with a local teen center on a creative, collaborative project, their combined talent and drive to create made the possibilities virtually endless. Yet of all the vast realms and universes out there to explore, they wondered what would happen if they decided to venture into the most volatile and dangerous of all—the human psyche?
With acute insight into the effects of modern technology on human relations and a Black Mirror twist on a beloved Twilight Zone tale, writer/director Rik Cordero and the digital dream-weavers over at the Neutral Zone set about telling a story that would resonate with viewers—a story marked by that humbling moment when the whirlwind dreams of our early-20s must reconcile with the kind of reality that doesn't make ratings. The result was Force Touch, which had it's world premiere at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, May 19th. An emotionally-charged, fifteen-minute short, Force Touch centers on a group of young friends whose fates are sealed after they discover a cell phone with a camera that takes pictures of events just before they really happen.
By day the Senior Media Producer at Duo Security, Cordero already had an impressive filmography when he departed his native Queens for the greener pastures—literally and figuratively—of Tree Town:
"My wife Nancy (Executive Producer of the film) and I, moved from New York City to Ann Arbor last July. We shot a ton of music videos and commercials during our time there but the work life balance sucked. Once we moved, the creative quality of our lives improved almost immediately through meeting many diverse folks with common interests."
"With more time to focus on storytelling, I came up with the idea of Force Touch and my goal was to capture elements of the college culture here from an outsider's point of view. I'm a college football fan but maybe not to the degree as some of my friends who have lived here their entire lives so I wanted to explore those emotions and how they would bounce off the characters in the story. Also Ann Arbor was a new canvas for me to employ a layer of sci-fi and technology which is another passion of mine."
It was Duo Security owner Dug Song and his wife Linh who introduced Cordero to Neutral Zone Executive Director Lori Roddy and Community Relations Director Mary Moffett. Later, after touring the facility, the filmmaker hatched a plan to write and direct a short to be produced by the Neutral Zone in collaboration with Alysha Schlundt-Bodien, Facility and Training Coordinator at CTN in Ann Arbor.
Tasked with supervising the teens during the shoot, Schlundt-Bodien was thrilled to witness firsthand how valuable the experience was for the teens: "I asked one of the Neutral Zone teens to talk about his experience to the VP group, and he said that he learned so much from the production. He learned that it takes way more time to set everything up than he thought it did—from the lighting to the staging—and how important it is to be organized. He also said it would be great to help out with something like this again."
Of course every independent film is a struggle, and though a major snowstorm on the first day of shooting set the tone of the turbulent production, the teenage crew weathered on, gaining valuable experience about the importance of persevering amidst unexpected set-backs. Despite even the most meticulous planning, any number of things can go wrong on a movie shoot at the last second, making a filmmaker's ability to improvise under challenging circumstances a critical component of success.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the camera, you'll find a talented selection of actors thst Cordero and his wife/filmmaking partner, Nancy, became acquainted with during last year's YPSI 24 Hour Shootout, which challenges independent filmmakers to produce an engaging short in a single day.
But the fortuitous connection to local talent was just one of the perks of participation; in Cordero's words, "There's a special sense of camaraderie and collaboration here that's been missing for awhile in New York City. It's easy to stay busy in NYC but most video creatives including myself were often stuck hustling multiple gigs just to pay the bills. There's a better work life balance here that's very refreshing and reminds me about why I got into this business in the first place—to share stories and stay inspired."
And inspiration was exactly what Cordero intended to do by showcasing Force Touch, along with a specially-curated selection of other locally-produced shorts, on Thursday, May 19th at the historic Michigan Theater. During the lively question and answer session that followed the sold-out screening, Cordero voiced hope that the event could act as a sort-of catalyst of creativity among local media artists. Judging by the stellar turnout, he may be onto something, too; the Michigan Theater's Screening Room was buzzing with excitement as the cast and crew fielded questions from the audience before raffling off prizes that included enough filmmaking gear to make any aspiring Scorsese salivate.
Highlights of that session included the revelation that the story was originally set to take place during football season, but that the plan was scrapped due to the aforementioned snowstorm (the actual film production only lasted a couple of days), and that the idea to offer a twist on the original Rod Serling tale from the Twilight Zone episode "A Most Unusual Camera," came after reading a news article about a prototype iPhone accidentally left at a bar by a careless member of the development team. That story, combined with Cordero's fascination with "things we don't see that can control our lives," such as complex social media algorithms with the potential to alter real-life relationships, served as the pillars of Force Touch's plot.
Near the end of the question and answer session, Cordero, visibly moved while addressing the packed auditorium, hinted that this event could be the first in a series aimed at showcasing local films and filmmakers. It's a noble goal that, judging by the "Sold Out" sign at the box office, is well within reach.
But that's the future. As for the present, the seeds of creativity definitely appear to have taken root. Asked about his experiences working as a production assistant on Force Touch, Neutral Zone teen Adam Ruff exclaimed, "I definitely want to move forward in filmmaking, although I don't know in what capacity just yet."
With events like this premiere and the YPSI 24 Hour Shootout, as well as the abundance of creative programs offered by the Neutral Zone, Ruff will no doubt have an abundance of opportunities to stay inspired and grow his talents. You don't need a camera that can see into the future to be certain of that.
Jason Buchanan is a writer living in Ann Arbor.
The dollar theaters are gone, but their value lives on in two of the last places frugal moviegoers might expect.
That’s right, over a decade after the Fox Village Theater was replaced by Plum Market, and nearly six years after MC Sports punted Briarwood Dollar Movies from the hallowed halls of our local mall, deal-seeking cinephiles can still save thanks to special programs at the Quality 16 on the west side of town, and Cinemark's Rave Motion Pictures to the east.
And while it’s true these programs may not adhere strictly to the “second-run” model that once provided moviegoers on a budget with affordable entertainment alternatives, programs focusing on beloved classics and recent children’s fare ensure that audiences of all ages and tastes will find something to butter their proverbial popcorn.
As any frequent moviegoer can attest, the film release landscape has seen some seismic shifts in recent years. Even as recently as 2010 – the year that Briarwood screens went dark – affordable home theater systems and changing distribution models were making it difficult for discount theater chains to survive, much less thrive. Flash forward just a few years, and convenient alternatives such as Netflix (whose high-profile sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny recently debuted on the popular streaming service) and On Demand options have started to make leaving the house for a night at the movies more of a pricey chore than an escape from reality.
Fortunately, some savvy theater chains have started to pick up the slack for those shuttered screens. Opened in 1998, the Goodrich Theater Quality 16 primarily focuses on first-run films. A closer look at the chain’s history, however, reveals they are currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of their family-friendly movie series. Dubbed “Morning Movies,” the current program promises nine weeks of PG-rated fare for just $1 a ticket. The shows, which began on March 4 with Home (2015), run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10 am.
Even better, patrons who sign up for the theater’s free Frequent Moviegoers Club will not only get into each screening absolutely free, but also be allowed up to 6 free admissions to each show by presenting their FMG card at the box office.
Speaking to Quality 16 Assistant Manager Mark Culp, it quickly becomes apparent just how popular these series are. According to Culp, “Ticket sales can be a little slow toward the beginning of the season, but once the word starts to spread, we usually have to open a second auditorium to accommodate the larger crowds.”
Of course it doesn’t hurt to have some symbiotic advertising as well. “A lot of the time we’ll have special guests come in for appearances at the screenings, too. We’ve had karate group demonstrations, and even a petting zoo with a real kangaroo.” These special guests frequently appear in the theater’s spacious lobby, and tie in to the theme of that week’s movie. The series ends on the weekend of April 29th with the beloved adventure comedy The Princess Bride.
Meanwhile, across town, the Cinemark is in the midst of their popular Classic Series, a six-week program catering not just to parents, but also to those nostalgic souls who long to experience their old favorites somewhere other than the living room. Each week a new film debuts on Sunday, with an encore screening the following Wednesday.
The series launched in 2013 after a group of Arizona senior citizens asked their local theater about the possibility of resurrecting some of their favorite classics. From there, the series quickly expanded nationwide with screenings of The Godfather I and II, and now plays at approximately 140 theaters.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The introduction of digital projection brought with it a new distribution system that made these films easily available to theaters across the country. Gone are the days of the beat-up 35mm print sputtering its way through wobbling projector spindles; these copies have been cleaned up so well that they likely look even better than you remember them.
Cinemark Marketing Manager Frank Gonzales takes particular pride in that, too. "I would venture to guess that for a lot of these folks, the presentation is much cleaner than they remember it, because there are no cuts, no scratches like you would find on the prints. The sound is probably better than they remember because we've got digital sound systems in all of our auditoriums with speakers and specs that are built for that auditorium," says Gonzales.
As for the wide-reaching appeal of the series, Gonzales continues, "The Classic Series have really become a generational thing, with parents going back to see the movies they saw as kids and bringing their own kids with them. Or folks who remember seeing a movie when they were younger and want to see it again. Maybe it was the first movie they ever saw in a theater, and now the only place they see it is on a television set, or possibly a phone, or on a tablet. So this is the opportunity for them to get the real experience."
According to Gonzales, the films for the series are selected in a number of ways. "We have a Film Department here. We've got a couple of people in the department that have their wish lists of things they'd like to see. We also get feedback from customers. They're always offering their suggestions for films to place in the Classics Series. Then sometimes the studios will come to us. They'll say they're going to put out an anniversary edition of a movie. For instance, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We just recently had that last week."
Naturally, as more theaters embrace the digital projection model, every year brings new titles that weren't previously available for screening. So if your favorite film isn't in this series, let your voice be heard, and there's a fair chance it will be in the future. Speaking of days to come, on Sunday, April 3 and Wednesday, April 6, movie lovers can take an epic voyage into a frightening prospective future and beyond, with back-to-back screenings of the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Other screenings yet to come include an Easter Sunday matinee of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with a pair of encores the following Wednesday), and the series capper, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on Sunday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 13.
Jason Buchanan is a writer living in Ann Arbor.