It is more than a little unfair attempting to sum up a week’s worth of frenetic film-going in a single short recap. The 43rd annual Ann Arbor Film Festival that took over the Michigan Theater for the past six days presented hundreds of films and panel discussions in its continuing endeavor to showcase the latest and greatest of independent and experimental cinema.
Who needs Sundance to feel a part of the indie-hipster scene? Saturday night found the Michigan Theater’s decked-out lobby abounding in leather jackets and silvered, slicked-back hair, with a live music trio in one corner and a complimentary Starbucks table in the other. Add the eager whispers buzzing about the presence of indie actor Crispin Glover (“Back to the Future”), and the night was ripe for some experimental film-going in the singular, keyed-up vibe of a festival.
The Festival carried an especially homey feel, as its one-venue format contributed to a cohesive atmosphere that larger festivals lose with multi-theater sprawl. Each screening was personally introduced by the festival producer, and the audience itself maintained an energetic buzz far more animated than that of a typical friday-night movie crowd — the exact mood for which every festival aims.
The Saturday night sampling of short films offered a taste of the different styles featured at the festival, ranging from documentary to animation to media manipulation. Off-beat subject material proved to be their only similarity: One documentary short highlighted the abnormally thick toenails of a long time hitchhiker, while another piece, entitled “Big Schtick,” delved into the male fascination with, well, precisely that. By cross-cutting a selection of pop culture images — everything from Alec Guiness with his light saber to Clark Gable with his cane to Kubrick’s “2001” monkey-men with their bones — filmmaker Courtney Egan achieved the rare cinematic feat of making Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator appear to ruthlessly mow down a tap-dancing Bing Crosby.
Due to the brevity of these films, a piece’s acclaim often came on the merit of its sheer visual originality. One short in particular, detailing three true stories of animal attack, utilized an incredible display of stop-motion camera work, freezing a horse in mid-kick while circling its outstretched hind legs in 90 degrees. And the playful scratch-animation style of the screening’s opening short gave the cartoon an audience-winning whimsy. A sweetly humored tale of love among music players, “Hello” featured a creaky old gramophone schooling a lonesome tape-player in the art of wooing his mp3-player neighbor.
The winningly individual pieces, which made up the majority of the night, happily escaped the overly-experimental reputation that often plagues arts festivals, though the tag “independent film” often conjures such images as the “American Beauty” guy who found profundity in videotaping windswept plastic bags. Of all 10 pieces featured in the shorts screening, only one or two fell under the category of criminally artsy and, at the very least, they were short.
Perhaps the best indication of the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s multilevel appeal came with its own cinematic vignette shown prior to all screenings. Featuring a man lovingly stroking his film camera to the oldies tune “Dream Lover,” the clip spoke to many casual audience members merely of a filmmaker’s love for his medium. But to the true cinephiles of the indie-film community, the clip also carried a special reference by clearly alluding to “Kustom Kar Kommandoes,” a 1965 short known well but not widely. That the festival clip could cater so easily to both audiences is an appropriate introduction for the festival itself, which continues to entertain and inspire the general public while staying true to the indie roots from which the whole event sprung.