It was a plain 40 minute excursion on I-23 North, passing dozens of unfortunate squirrels, skunks and other posthumous rodents, having been flattened by speeding tires. Those same tires were later seen blown apart further up the road, trails of rubber scattered like jigsaw pieces. Where were the cameras for this setting? They lost the potential for an excruciating film that could have been depicted as a metaphor of the onslaught against nature by half-assed manufacturing. Somewhere an academic realized this and shed a tear.
The 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival was to begin in a few hours. Turning 50 would be a ceremony for anyone, even those teetering on the edge of curmudgeon. But for a film festival that concerns itself mainly with experimental, animation and installation pieces, turning half a century certainly deserved a tip of the hat. My expectations were mild though: I attended the previous year and sat grinding my teeth to the gums while powering through a series of found footage projects (it’s exactly what it sounds like, for those unaware). My concern this year was the threat of the open bar at the Grand Reception prior to the initial screenings. Had said bar promoted Sailor Jerry, neither I nor my photo crew would have made it out alive, and this article would not be taking place. For once, sobriety (on some level) was a savior.
Upon arrival our concentration was thrown off after nearly committing third degree vehicular manslaughter against eager bicyclists and walking pedestrians on more than one occasion. Damn right away law! Bill Hicks was right: “Step on the goddamn gas!” After shaking the thought of jail time by heckling some of the locals and filling our stomachs with happy hour specials, the first interviewee was found - an hour before the show.
“Ypsi” was a stud personality. And one hell of a homeless man. Crouched over an outside dining table and draped in a Joker-purple rain coat, he made no bones about his mission: he wanted your dollar. Now.
“Mind if I talk to you for a minute?” I approached offering a cigarette as invitation.
“What the hell for? I’m waitin’ for my guy; he’s busy makin’ a phone call,” Ypsi barked, only making eye contact should a female pass by. I had never met a homeless man who was in a hurry.
“I’m in town for the day and wanted to interview anyone and everyone for a publication.” I had to hurry to capture this peach, setting my handheld tape recorder so it wouldn’t deform any previous musings.
“Well let’s just do it and get it over with.” Ypsi wasn’t having any of the charades.
“So what brings you to Ann Arbor?” Standard ice breaker.
“Why’re you homeless?”
“Had a girl rip me off $700. I keep getting’ ripped off ‘cause I keep messin’ with them hos.” Any person dealt a raw hand is never afraid to show it to the crowd.
“You got any money on ya?” He continued, eventually I had to pay the piper.
“Yeah I got two gold dollars on me.”
“Anything else?” Ypsi gained my respect for being completely obnoxious and up front about his motive. There was no sob story, no brain teaser, just a guy wanting my dollar. And by god if I wasn’t going to give it to him.
“Yeah I got a ten I can break. After we get done.” Biding my time.
“So what do you like about Ann Arbor?” I asked.
“The women.” F--k the films, who isn’t here for the real eye candy?
“What about the women?”
“Nice legs, short skirts, round curves, nice personality.” Spoken like a true pussy hound.
Talking to Ypsi was the most expensive interview I’ve done so far: two gold dollars for entry and an Abe Lincoln out of gratitude. There was no false academia masked in rough living, no metaphors, no implicit meanings, no posturing. The man was a character in a sea of North Face and Starbucks. For a homeless man to hold the least amount of pretentiousness is equivalent to the soil reminding you of the earth you inhabit. So what if he was another scam--at least he knew where he stood. I hope Ypsi finds a woman to do him in one more time.
Six p.m. signaled the opening. A sea of faces and festival passes flooded the brightly lit, smooth carpeted grand foyer of the Michigan Theater. Hors d’ourves floating on sterling silver trays; drinks by request, an odd selection of music - anything from Al Green to generic Salsa. Shoulder to shoulder with media, organizers, wanderers and local personalities. None of whom I recognized. Two missions abound: get as many people to talk and hope none of them were disguised as professional pickpockets. Close quarters calls for close watch on thy wallet.
The most enthusiastic audio spats came from the locals--people who had been around the block and back down Main Street with this festival--those who honestly cared for the festival’s well being and were ecstatic about the turn out.
“The best part of the festival now is the fact that, at 50, it’s bigger now than ever and just keeps growing year after year. The fact that it’s still here is something to behold,” said Denny Hayes, a stout and silver haired patron who glowed like a fan since the beginning, one of the last holdouts from the old days. He reveled at the swarm of people like a proud family member any time he turned his drunken gaze upon them.
“This wasn’t here five years ago.” That was the last statement I got out of him before we both wandered into the crowd.
As exciting as the atmosphere may have been, the question, “Why are you here?” had to be asked. Was this crowd here in support of cinema, the community or free booze? I must say the bartenders did mix a mean double on the rocks.
“My idea of cinema is anything weird. I like thought-provoking material and anything that pushes my limits.” Standard answer by the character known as Beard. Don’t ask why, that was what he wanted to be called.
“Personally, I’m here for the experimental films. I like what can happen with the visuals, as though you’re creating a moving painting and can make anyone do anything. You can make an epileptic have a seizure; you can create emotions based on simple colors. It’s a terrific form of expression because you can meld other mediums into it, such as music. You can drive an experimental film simply through sound and create this synergy that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.” Matt Wilkin was a string-bean, sporting Buddy Holly glasses and partial to expressive body language. He was adamant during our conversation, one of the more natural people I came across.
“I expect some well-poured drinks. To be honest I can’t tell ya I have any expectation for the actual films.” This man will be Anonymous. Who is he but another face in the crowd? He had nothing to say.
The effect of the festival on the community became one of the bigger topics during the reception.
Jay Sandweiss, a burly townie with a glazed amazement who looked as though he should be harvesting catch off the shore of Cape Cod, responded in a glow when I posed the question, “Is the film festival now more about a celebration of Ann Arbor--in the way that SXSW has become a celebration of Austin?”
“It’s Ann Arbor comes alive. What’s happened is, since it’s 50 years old now, it’s become part of the city. It’s hard to separate the film component. The perception is that Ann Arbor is evolving into one of the premier film festivals. Having lived here for 41 years, it’s hard to draw the line between the festival as an ‘Ann Arbor’ event and what is still known to the outside world as a big deal. This festival now stands on its own.”
Revealing as these conversations were, it was agonizing to have only spoken with one filmmaker in contest: a quiet, petite Asian woman named Elaine who was showing later in the week and who had stepped off the plane two hours before. Needless to say she looked as though she didn’t even want to talk to a wall. I heard all night there were several filmmakers on hand, but they all seemed to have donned kabuki masks and scattered themselves beyond the reach of this young upstart. “Damn him!” they declared, snickering as they tip-toed into the main screening room.
I could hear whispers of that same declaration as the clutter of films featured in the Opening Screening rolled along. Disappointment is the best description, a collage of images and sounds that left my crew and I underwhelmed and asking the four response questions: “Yeah?” “And?” “So?” “What?” Not all of the material seemed scraped from the bottom of a size 12, though. There were moments of poignancy that the majority of the films missed, not because they weren’t original but because we felt we had seen this before: looping soundtrack, detournement of imagery, flash frames, in-camera effects. The execution was stale at best. Yes it was experimental, but not intrusive, not controversial. Few of the opening night’s films dug beneath the fact it was outside the narrative, away from A,B,C,D - deciding to hover in some Cinematic No-Man’s Land between Stimulating and Deceiving.
What made me scratch my head the most was the enthusiastic applause every film received. I didn’t mind so much the deserving films, such as Don Hertzfeldt’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”: a hand drawn film about a stick figure character overtaken by amnesia, Ben Russell’s “River Rites”: a one take in reverse about an Animist water ritual and “Tokyo Ebisu”: a cubist look at trains by Tomonari Nishikawa. But at times it was as though I was up front at the president’s state of the union address: a pinch of mediocre content, followed by massive applause. I have to question the motive of such enthusiasm. Was it because the audience was truly affected by the film? Or was it because they were shown something outside of the usual and wanted to applaud the effort?
Walking out of the theater into the balmy Tuesday night, my crew and I cleared our throats and debated the ups and downs of the trip. Opening night went off with a POP, not a BANG. Was I surprised by the complete lack of gloating? Yes. Was I taken aback by the humility of the crowd? Yes. Was I enraptured by the power of these films? Some, yes. Others, not in the slightest. My lack of appreciation led me to begin questioning the merit of the selection jury, something that would be mulled over further on Wednesday, Day Two. Maybe something more exuberant was to come. Maybe.
Photos by Nicholas Vechery