The blank film lay on the table in the Grand Foyer of the Michigan Theater, waiting for visitors to the 46th annual Ann Arbor Film Festival to mark up frames to produce a series of images that would later be projected on the main theater screen.  A few feet away, some toy animals and a movable projector awaited other filmgoers’ attempts at stop-motion animation.

These hands-on activities allowed visitors to project their personalities in the same way that the festival film creators projected their own ideas in their works.  This spirit of creativity was alive and well at the different venues of the festival, including the main theater on the evening of March 26, 2008.  There, I saw a variety of short films that explored human psychology.  Earlier, Buster Keaton’s attempt to get married in Seven Chances was accompanied by the unique sounds of the bLuE daHLia musical group.

For regular visitors to the Michigan Theater, perhaps nothing changes the general atmosphere of this grand old movie house more than the annual visit of the films, decorations, and personalities of the Ann Arbor Film Festival.  The publicity display cases in front of the theater by the ticket booth are filled with advertisements for one-time only presentations of different film events, instead of the theater’s regular movies.

The Grand Foyer gets a big makeover, with cutout decorations of film objects (like projectors and reels) suspended just above everyone’s heads.  Various display tables give visitors the chance to pick up publicity material for festival films, get a free sample of coffee, or help support the festival by buying t-shirts and other items.  A large purple couch by the main staircase gave festival visitors and participants a place to check their laptop PCs, grab a quick bite of dinner, or just hang out and soak in the vibes of this unique event.

The stimulating variety of colors and images continued throughout the theater.  The area outside the Screening Room was filled with more publicity material, as well as ongoing films on the video screens that are a year-round part of the Michigan.  Even the men’s bathroom was filled with a variety of large, crayon-like drawings of young people.

Stretching the Limits

After taking in the energetic atmosphere of the non-auditorium areas, I found a seat in the main theater, and listened to the melodies of the Michigan’s Barton organ before sitting back for some classic Buster Keaton entertainment.  That Barton organ is the usual accompaniment for silent films at the Michigan, but in the spirit of the film festival, something completely different was used this time.

bLuE daHLia brought a more pop music style of accompaniment to this 1926 tale of Buster Keaton trying to get married in time to collect a big inheritance. Acoustic guitars, bass guitars, drums, and even singing propelled this story along.  In some ways, it was similar to the shotgun style of musical sounds that I have heard the Alloy Orchestra use at the Detroit Film Theatre in their silent film presentations. bLuE daHLia has a more acoustic sound than the Alloy Orchestra, which uses a lot of powerful electronic keyboard and percussion sounds.

Interestingly, the Alloy Orchestra opened me up more to big screen silent film presentations.  Since I first heard them (in the mid-90s), my ears have become more attuned to solo keyboard accompaniment for silent films, thanks to the excellence of many such shows at the DFT, Michigan and Redford Theatre.  The sounds of bLuE daHLia at times were jarring and out of sync with my accustomed way of watching a silent movie.  But the enthusiastic applause of the audience (which included many young people) proved that bLuE daHLia had entertained the audience and maybe introduced many people to silent films.

After Seven Chances, several members of bLuE daHLia stood on the Michigan stage and talked about their experiences, in a very personable, friendly way.  The group evolved out of their love for silent movies and their talents with different kinds of musical instruments.  They have a “deep respect” for the traditional way of presenting silent films, and are trying to add a more modern sound to the ways that silent movies can be shown.  Some singing during Seven Chances reminded me a lot of the pop songs that are inserted into current movies to move the plot along.

Bite-Sized Cinema

The heart of the Ann Arbor Film Festival is in the different programs of short films that follow unique themes.  After watching Seven Chances, I stayed around to explore “The Orbits Inside,” a collection of films co-presented by The Michigan Psychoanalytic Society that “explore the influences on our identities.”

Several of these short movies used montages of pop culture images from the 1950s and 1960s to make different sociopolitical points.  Other films were less manipulative in their message, and let basic images speak for themselves, like the mixture of nature scenes and garbage in Ah, Liberty! and the emotionally charged discussions of the intersex condition in One in 2000

In several movies, the filmmakers cut loose with a barrage of intuitively related images, as they tried to create brand new impressions and sensations.  It was similar to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the astronaut hurtles through space on a mysterious and overwhelming journey of the mind, soul, and heart.

Along with the films, visitors got to hear festival Executive Director Christen McArdle (with her faded bell bottom blue jeans and her long, frilly jacket) whose loose, laid back style helps set the tone for the festival.  Her enthusiastic, supportive introduction to films was part of a vibrant, six-day event that included after-parties where filmmakers and other festival visitors could network and discuss the films. It was definitely a College Town event, with many University of Michigan students enjoying the chance to take a break from the tough last month of the school year.

And this cauldron of creativity and camaraderie probably produced many spontaneous, memorable experiences. As I waited for Seven Chances to start, I noticed some volunteers from the Redford Theatre settling into the front row of the main theater.  Just as they were sitting down, the screen flashed an advertisement for the College for Creative Studies, which is right across the street from the Detroit Film Theatre.

Both the CCS and the DFT contribute greatly to the energy of the Detroit Cultural Center.  This happy convergence of associations with all three of the Detroit Movie Palaces was one more unique and unexpected part of visiting the Ann Arbor Film Festival.   

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Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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