At a career fair hosted by the History Department, I talked about Ann Arbor’s film culture with one of the alumni the department had brought in. Apparently, it was once possible to purchase tickets that could be used to attend a variety of films playing throughout campus — in auditoriums and rooms in any University building imaginable.
No one would doubt that cinema, as a cultural experience, has been a rather big deal in the Ann Arbor area for some time. This past year alone, we’ve brought to town national and global firsts like the Japanese and Korean Film Festivals, respectively.
If you’ve read Jacob Axelrad’s article on the history of Hash Bash, you’ll know that Andy Warhol had shown material at one of the many film festivals that have occurred in Ann Arbor over the past 60 years.
However, cinema, like all art forms, is in constant flux; the forms it takes as an experience are constantly changing. Even the communal experience the alumni related probably became superfluous or untenable with the advent of VHS and, later on, with the Internet.
Yet, even as things change in Ann Arbor, old forms persist in a big way. While most of the world may have watched a near-complete overhaul of the cinematic landscape, in Ann Arbor, older technologies, methods and moods like the Barton Organ or the old-time ’20s architecture of the Michigan Theater, exist beside new developments.
I would like to relate one particular experience I had at the Michigan Theater, where I was reminded of this changing cinematic landscape. I saw “Nosferatu” one year during the Halloween season. This has become a tradition in the area and an event I definitely suggest everyone check out at least once while they are here.
As it was originally performed, a live organist plays a score of the movie. The difficulty of syncing up the score with the movie in real time, especially when some of the music functions as sound effects, is something I cannot fathom, but is undoubtedly something I respect. I became anxious, as I usually do during live performances, and it gave an edge to a movie that was once very scary for its contemporary audience. In fact, during one of the more “scary” scenes, a sweet old lady next to me gasped in horror at the sight of the monstrous Nosferatu.
I was confronted, during her short-but-profound gasp, with the generational gap in cinema. What is laughable to the modern audience, subject to the most obscene horrors during even a casual film viewing, might be the most sublime depths of past generations. To discuss it in a class was one thing, but witnessing it was something else.
Fast-forward a year and I’m watching “The Avengers” at Ann Arbor’s Quality 16. The experience seems unimaginably different. After the movie, as I’m in the bleached tiled bathroom, I hear a couple of kids talking about it.
“Man, that was like living the dream,” one said.
While I was originally perplexed that watching a movie could be “the dream,” maybe it was possible: a decent film adaptation of iconic comic culture, Robert Downey Jr.’s particular brand of humor and enough CGI destruction to satisfy the most extreme of Freudian aggressions. But it is definitely a particular dream, one of the current moment. Before the “talkie” revolution, the “dream” was probably just hearing the human voice.
Given the rarity of such an experience as “Nosferatu,” it’s not hard to see that cinema culture is ingrained in the Ann Arbor community. The space has been invested with an eye toward film; it is, in many ways, part of the city’s landscape. With recent updates — like the Askwith Media Library, where, freshman year, I attempted the impossible feat of getting my tuition’s worth through free rentals — there does appear to be further investment.
And yet, I won’t be quick to rest easy about the persistence of the old experiences. Updates on the Barton Organ have required a great deal of passion and investment on behalf of the people and, for a short time, the organ fell into disarray.
Come what may, the preciousness and vulnerability of the unique experiences offered by Ann Arbor’s film culture are apparent, and I encourage them to always be encountered as such.