The crowd roars. That familiar voice blares across the stadium, “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Michigan marching band … Band, take the field!” It’s a ritual, a Saturday morning tradition, and has been the central hub of activity in Ann Arbor on weekends for almost a hundred years. It’s a University football game at “The Big House,” the largest football stadium in North America, and now the one with an equally large and ambitious documentary to boot.
Filmed in collaboration between University students, Screen Arts and Cultures professors Terri Sarris and Abé Markus Nornes and visiting professor Kazuhiro Soda, “The Big House” is a complete and thorough examination of everything that happens on any given football Saturday, both on and off the field. The film features a number of segments, all of which are done in a style that places the viewing audience within the action to a startling degree. We follow, at various times, the band preparing to make its journey before the game, the preparations made by stadium staff for the visiting opponent, the parties and antics of students in the hours preceding the event and the trials and tribulations of the viewers watching the game from the stands as it unfolds. All this, and much more. “The Big House” is about as complete a depiction of a football Saturday in Ann Arbor as one could possibly hope for. The only facet of the day that appears to be missing is the experience of the players themselves, which doubtlessly seems like one of the few places in which the filmmakers might have had an access problem.
Although the various scenes of life in the stadium are interesting, strangely enough, it is when “The Big House” leaves home that the film truly soars. The most engaging and interesting segments of the film are the one’s that follow the variety of characters that populate the streets of Ann Arbor both before and after the game. From dancers, to people shouting about the town’s sins, to a particularly talented and funny street side drummer, these people bring a human element to the film and add some variety and humor to the film’s most entertaining segment.
In other spots, it sometimes feels like the movie is repeating familiar beats. There are only so many shots of the crowd you can show before they all begin to seem the same. Some sequences feel like they outlive their running time but the film refuses to move on from them. Other times individual shots, such as one of a kid trying to sell M&Ms outside the arena, feel like they could be half as long as they are. Such is the nature of this style of filmmaking: To give the viewer a sense of totality to what they are witnessing. It will work for many, but there are some who will wish the movie moved a little bit faster.
More than anything else, without necessarily meaning to, “The Big House” draws attention to the fact that all of this — the parties, the preparations, the alumni, the donations, the pomp and circumstance — is ultimately in service of watching a game play out on a field. When the movie takes a short chance to show us the view of the game from the sideline, for a second or two the audience might think, “All of this, for that?” It’s to the great credit of the filmmakers that this documentary makes no comment on any of the scenes it is providing, but asks the audience to draw the commentary on their own. The movie ends with what feels like a somewhat disconnected segment in which University President Mark Schlissel explains to wealthy alumni why they should continue to donate and thanks them for their donations. The film makes no attempt to bridge this sequence too much with anything that preceded it. It doesn’t need to. The audience can do the math.
Listen to a conversation with the filmmakers of “The Big House” on The Daily’s Podcast “Arts, Interrupted” here.