Blog: Ben Miller

Yesterday marked the opening of the 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival. In celebration we've asked long time fan and festival goer (and Ypsilanti librarian) Ben Miller to blog about what the festival means to him, why it's an important part of our local culture, why you should go, and what he's looking forward to seeing this year.

Ann Arbor Film Festival - A Report From The Front Lines

Opening night was everything that I hoped it would be. My dad and I, who showed up separately, happened to be wearing the same silhouettes (three piece suit of classic material, bow tie). Many others were dressed up for the occasion, with Donald Harrison sporting a smart tuxedo! The opening night film selection was what I have come to love of the film festival. Opening night is always a mixture of lengths, formats, different narrative / non-narrative types. Don Hertzfeld's "It's such a beautiful day," was my favorite and I was completely gripped by the film. Hertzfeld's simple, minimalist, yet poignant animated films are always crowd pleasers. This film finished up a narrative following a hapless man as he nears the end of his life. This time there were crazy colors and beautiful light effects, as well as an amazing final story, continuing far beyond the end of the world. Other favorites included "Irma" following the daily life of a retired female lucha libre wrestler, "Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke," with a strange science fiction looping story starring Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, and "Pluto Declaration," which calls in to questions the politics behind the science of what is and isn't considered a planet. Out Night with Barbara Hammer on Wednesday night was phenomenal. Some favorites included "Looking for Jiro," in which Tina Takemoto found and performed on film the little known narrative of one Queer Japanese American, Jiro Onuma, who was imprisoned at Topaz concentration camp during World War II. Using dance, music, film, and allusions to fistfucking, Takemoto brought to the forefront a silenced part of Queer and Japanese American history. "Jerovi," originally screened at the 3rd AAFF in 1965, used supersaturated color, beautiful setting, and lovely body motion to queer the myth of Narcissus, featuring a masturbation scene I could only describe as beautiful, moving, passionate and heartfelt, words not often lent to such an act. The real star of the screening was Barbara Hammer herself. At 73 years old, she bounded upon the stage with a spritely energy and commanded the discussion with Donald Harrison with a vigor I can only hope for at that age, truly inspirational. My favorite film of hers was "No No Nooky T.V.," which I believe I had seen before, perhaps at one of the body exhibiting screenings during the controversy with MCACA. Using day glow graphics lovingly rendered on her Commodore Amiga computer, she creates a montage of graphics, text, and sound, of all the words and phrases we'd like to say, but often don't. Craig Baldwin's Thursday lecture in the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished speaker was titled Masochism of the Margins of the Society of the Spectacle. Baldwin tore us collectively through the history of the underground and how it relates to films, cutting in and out with examples of mashiups and films made from found footage. At the end some may have been scratching their heads, but those who managed to keep up were surely invigorated by his dynamism. Friday's panel discussion, "Rooted Not Retro" drew upon the collective consciousness and rich institutional memory of the Ann Arbor Film Festival with panelists including previous AAFF directors, film makers, and festival goers, as well as us in the crowd, the "peanut gallery," so to speak. With current and recent festival directors in the audience, as well as others important to the history of the festival, many hot button issues were discussed and sussed out along with the stories of the "good old days," to give us young'uns perspective. There was fiery debate over preference for setting the festival in the Michigan Theater as opposed to the smaller theater in Lorch Hall as was done before the Michigan Theater's renovation. Some advocated for the smaller, more intimate vibe, that while it may have been inaccessible, drew in those who were truly dedicated to the festival. Others cherished the use of the beautifully restored Michigan Theater in which to showcase the festival. It was so interesting to see multiple sides of debates that I could never have even formed an opinion on, only having been going to the festival since the 36th festival in 1998. Whether a longer, fuller, festival schedule, once even referred to as a catalog was an improvement over the shorter simpler list, with no descriptions of the films, perhaps not even listing the length of the films or cities of origin was discussed. Also whether or not to list the names of the filmmakers of all submitted films, including the "reject list," alternately called the "also submitted list" or "time permitting list," brought passionate discussions with multiple solutions. There was also discussion about descriptive titling to the screenings and whether or not they should be all mixed together or grouped around themes. People had chances to sum up in few words, their ideas of what the festival was all about, ranging from my local secular holiday idea with ties with ritual and ceremony, to a necessity, to a community experience. In the end, Donald put it well, mentioning that the festival is all about trying new things and seeing what works, and it doesn't get more experimental than that!