The energy of the inaugural Cinetopia International Film Festival was building to a high point at about 9 p.m. on Friday, June 1, 2012, as I listened to the final comments of Suzanne Lloyd, granddaughter of the famous silent film comedian Harold Lloyd.
Inside the main auditorium of the Michigan Theater, Suzanne was finishing a slide show presentation about her grandfather’s life and career. You could hear a large crowd gathering in the Grand Foyer, waiting to see the 9:30 p.m. showing of Louder Than Love, a documentary about the rock scene in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Soon, we were applauding Suzanne’s appearance, which followed a 7 p.m. showing of Harold Lloyd’s 1925 comedy The Freshman, with accompaniment by Michigan organist Stephen Warner. On that high note, the audience exited to the Grand Foyer, which was buzzing with anticipation for Louder Than Love.
It was the kind of continuous energy that festival planners hoped for when they set up this four-day event. It started on Thursday, May 31, and finishes on Sunday, June 3, with screenings at the Michigan, the State Theater, and Angell Hall on the campus of the University of Michigan.
Interestingly, my first encounter with Cinetopia was in a much quieter setting. The Michigan earlier hosted a 5 p.m. showing of the documentary Bestiaire, a quiet observation of animals and the people who interact with them in different ways.
It had almost no dialogue or music, but what might have been a test of patience turned out to be a very peaceful film. You could quietly reflect on the simple lives of animals, and the patience and humility that they need to survive. I work at Domino’s Farm on the east side of Ann Arbor, where I enjoy observing the many animals on the grounds of that office complex and at the Domino’s Petting Farm. Those experiences added to my enjoyment of Bestiaire.
Cinetopia builds on the relationship that the Michigan has developed in recent years with the Sundance Film Festival, which has used the Michigan to premiere movies that later played at Sundance. Cinetopia includes films that screened at Sundance and film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Toronto. In that festival spirit, flags advertising Cinetopia lined the streets of Ann Arbor.
Inside the theater, visitor-friendly tables were set up with personal greeters and different guides to Ann Arbor. Blue-shirted volunteers were everywhere to help keep the event running smoothly.
It’s the kind of event that has many possibilities for growth and change, like other yearly Ann Arbor events, such as the summer art fairs and the Ann Arbor Film Festival. The festival name (Cinetopia International Film Festival) is unique enough to keep it from being confused with the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which is in March. The festival name also opens it up to expanding beyond Ann Arbor.
Also, Cinetopia is presenting feature-length and story-based films in both English and foreign languages, while the Ann Arbor Film Festival includes shorter, more experimental movies than what Cinetopia is showing. Cinetopia continues some of the practices of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, like informal discussion groups in non-theater settings and visits by the different creators of the scheduled films. And it also has the upbeat, dynamic atmosphere that has helped draw people to the AAFF. All of the Michigan staff members and volunteers that I saw at Cinetopia seemed to have a special level of energy and enthusiasm.
A highlight of the weekend was a three-day tribute to Harold Lloyd that included feature films on Friday and Sunday, and several short comedies on Saturday. The tribute gave the Michigan the chance to show off two of its organists—Stephen Warner, who played the music for The Freshman (1925) on Friday, and Steven Ball, who accompanied the short films on Saturday and Safety Last! (1923) on Sunday.
I saw both of the features, but had to miss the short movies. On Saturday afternoon, I was at the Redford Theatre, enjoying another comedy classic—It Happened One Night (1934), which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), its two stars (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert), and writer Robert Riskin.
As I watched It Happened One Night, listening to its witty dialogue that made full use of the soundtrack, I reminded myself that the silent The Freshman had been released less than 10 years before. It was a blessing of sorts that movies were silent long enough to produce the great work of Harold Lloyd and others, and then it was time for sound to come along and add new dimensions of expression.
After The Freshman was shown, Michigan CEO and Executive Director Russ Collins sat down on stage with Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd for a discussion of her grandfather’s life and work. Her comments added a personal touch to what we had just seen on the screen, and when I watched Safety Last! two days later, I reflected on her words.
Safety Last! featured leading lady Mildred Davis, whom Lloyd eventually married, and who was Suzanne’s grandmother. Suzanne also talked about the accident that had severely damaged Harold Lloyd’s right hand, and in Safety Last!, you could see how well he had adapted to his handicap.
His famous scene in Safety Last! where he climbs the tall building and hangs from the broken clock was exciting enough, but was made even more impressive when you thought of what he had to overcome to perform the scene.
Before the movie, organist Steven Ball asked the audience how many people were seeing their first silent film. Many people held up their hands, and from the laughter and exclamations of wonder at the feats of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, I’m sure it won’t be their last silent movie.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.