About 20 minutes past the intended start time, we still stood outside the Michigan Theater’s screening room in claustrophobic gridlock. I realized I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
Welcome to the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s Films in Competition 9: “Animation.”
My editors and fellow film writers warned me, an AAFF first-timer, these films would be weird. Fourteen animated shorts and countless emotions, all derivatives of discomfort, later, I don’t know if “weird” is the right word.
They kicked off the competition with a 1975 animated short, “Quasi at the Quackadero.” Anthropomorphic ducks go to an amusement park, the one named Anita repeatedly croons the name “Quasi” in a bone-chilling way, and I can’t tell you much more than that because I think I’ve blocked it out.
I learned two things. First, this festival attracts a crowd. I’m talking an eventual 30-minute delay to the start-time, due to the monumental task of getting everyone into the theater. I’m talking energy: The AAFF title sequence began, and someone clapped along to the moderately catchy backing tune. Someone shouted, “Oh, Quasi!” Oh, Quasi. I did not laugh once. My reaction was fight or flight. As I registered laughter around me, I came to a second understanding: This festival attracts a subcommunity, one I am not a part of, and don’t plan on joining. It felt like one of those scenarios where you’re sitting among a group of friends, closer to each other than you are to them. They’re laughing at something and you only vaguely understand it, let alone find it funny, so you experience this discomfort — equal parts pain and longing — not so much for inclusion but for the vexation to cease.
As my level of discomfort became unbearable, I began to coach myself through it. Yes, a few of the shorts were so thoroughly, unproductively disturbing, that I had to go to my happy place. I think “Hedge” did the most damage: Child leashes, squadrons of women kissing each other nonstop, and again, I can’t tell you much more than that because I’ve blocked it out.
I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way. During one of several films that should have come with a warning for those with photosensitivity (but didn’t), consisting of a stream of flashing shapes, I glanced over, and my fellow moviegoer’s face encapsulated everything I now try to render in words. Her mouth was slightly open: Shock. It was shaped in a partial smirk: Slight bemusement, or the facial version of Where am I? Her eyes were wide: What am I looking at?
When I realized I had over an hour of this ahead of me still, I attempted a change in mindset. To try and find it funny, too. Resign to the absurdity. Stop expecting art to have a purpose and seek pleasure alone.
It didn’t work. I still saw text used profusely and always for the purpose of propagandistic, stale messages. I saw half-assed, hypocritical criticisms of human dependence on religion, technology and other familiar targets. Underneath it all, I saw a troubling idleness that shrugged and said, yes, this is enough. Flash some shocking graphics, prop up the images with recycled critiques, pepper it with opaque, self-indulgent tidbits and you’ve got yourself a work of art. What about the audience? What do we have to gain from that?
There was one, fleeting moment of reprieve in the competition: “Sun Zoom Spark.” Containing some of the most stunning graphics of the night, the film alternated between images of industrialized and untainted geography, appearing like blotted graphite compositions. A poetic, mesmerizing voiceover stitched the scenes together, providing compelling commentary on our changing notion of mistakes in a world with the CTRL + z function. At times, the speech felt stilted, but I’ll take preachy over pointless any day. At least the former is direct and aware of the communicative potential of art, rather than smugly self-content.
Granted, I did experience some version of the subcommunity I spoke about. Leaving the theater with my friends, we debriefed on our almost synonymous experience of the shorts as a bad omen of a direction artists are moving in. We had the same questions for each other: What was that? What was that for?
And I’m still not convinced that weird is the right word. I’d say puzzling at best, dispiriting at worst.