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Posted on Wed, Mar 28, 2012 : 4:12 p.m.

This was opening night

By Ryan Levin

All this week, Ryan will be covering the movies and moments of the 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival in the Michigan Theater, sharing his experiences of the festival. Share your thoughts and stories in the comments and enjoy a great week of experimental film!


Photo by Ryan Levin

Hanging high over the opening night of the 50th Ann Arbor Film Festival at the Michigan Theather was a glittering mobile featuring the festival logo, the double-F that makes an A inside of a larger A.

It's a two-hour party with filmmakers and festival staff, donors and movie lovers in attendance, catered by Ann Arbor businesses with complimentary drinks and appetizers.

The main floor swarmed with party-goers. There was a DJ jauntily spinning red records at a table next to the staircase. The lower landing was decorated with something that looked vaguely like the front of a particularly artsy carnival fun house ride with a half-open film shutter beckoning you inside.

Servers rushed in and out with trays of appetizers. People were hanging off the railings, finding seats on the staircase steps, pressed around tables and arms would reach out and grasp snacks from the black trays.

There were preserves on goat cheese and crunchy bread, miniature cupcakes piled high with frosting, square slices of pizzas and fried doughy things with indiscernable combinations of mushrooms, meat and roasted veggies.

Champagne was served on the top floor, bubbling out of specially labeled AAFF 50th bottles. Cocktails were on the ground floor near the back of the lobby, past the staircase and the DJ booth by the ramp down to the screening room.

Two harried but indefatigable bartenders from The Ravens Club slung drinks out to a mass of patrons pressing around the table. The drinks were named after notables from film and the festival's history.

There was the Anita Ekberg with vodka and splashes of blackberry syrup. The Michigan Theater Manhattan garnished with a bourbon soaked cherry. I had two George Manupellis - named after the festival's founder - a healthy dose of Maker's Mark chilled with orange liqueur and a few dashes of bitters. They were strong drinks.

Technical director Tom Bray was walking around with an iPhone taped onto the back of an iPad on a stick, projecting from the phone's camera onto the LCD screen, as people began filing into the main theater amid towers of mini-cupcakes trying to find themselves a decent seat.

As the lights went down, the Michigan Theater's Russ Collins took the stage to introduce Donald Harrison, tuxedo-clad with a sharp red bow tie, the film festival's executive director. Harrison welcomed the packed house and spoke to the significane of the event, thanked its staff and volunteers, and brought out founder George Manupelli to resounding cheers.

For the 50th time, the first films of the oldest experimental film festival in North America hit Ann Arbor screens.

This is what they were like.

The first film was "Taxonomy" by the late Karen Aqua. Surrounded by a flickering frame of photographic patterns from the natural world (butterflies and cactus thorns and rocks), animations of creatures and plants and minerals from the natural world morphed from one form into another, a common shape uniting one shape to the next: the interconnectedness of the creatures and things on display.

"River Rites" by Ben Russell is a single take played in reverse to a thumping, energetic soundtrack of the locals of the Upper Suriname River in South America. With the simple reversal of the footage, the visual majesty of movement and groups of people at play and of water are brought into sharp focus. Everyday activities look suddenly a bit more wonderful, maybe almost magical as the river explodes upward before we see the hands or the bodies that leap and break its surface.

Hope Tucker's "The Sea is (Still) Around Us" chronicles the polluting and contamination of Lake Sebasticook in Maine by holding old photo postcards from the lake before the part of the landscape they were taken of. The messages written on the backs are typed across the screen as the past of the once vacation and industrial spot plays out visually.

The longest short of the night, animator Don Hertzfeldt's "It's such a beautiful day" tells the story of a man stricken and losing his grasp of his memory and identity due to a stroke. With powerfully felt poignancy and Hertzfeldt's signature stick-figure and mixed media style, the narrative breaks and repeats and is sometimes represented with unrecognizable shapes as it tries to convey the experience of its character Bill.

A documentary short by Charles Fairbanks, the movie "Irma" was about Irma Gonzalez, a former champion of women's wresting and a recording artist living now in her old age in a notoriously dangerous quarter of Mexico City. Mostly quiet by incredibly personal, the little moments of watching Irma stiffly ascend a series of stairs or flex after working out at a gym or sing one of her songs about the abandonment of her former husband at the birth of her child come together to give us an impression of strength and happiness and humor that words could never convey.

The festival closed with an archival film by Robert Breer that played at the 2nd AAFF back in 1964. Called "A Man and His Dog Out for Air" it plays twisting, dancing series of shapes and lines that become vaguely recognizable objects and then quickly distort into something abstract, reappearing and reforming all about the screen.

Outside, after the films stopped playing, under the theater marquee, there was a little Chihuahua sticking its head just over the lip of the window of a red, white and blue vehicle that read All-American Cab and people congregating on the sidewalks and walking back to their cars talking about the movies they had just seen.


Photo by Jennifer Wright

This was opening night.