From provocative and stunning to chilling and poignant, the 38th Ann Arbor Film Festival tour encompasses an eclectic mix of content and technique. With running times ranging from one minute to 32 minutes, organized into four programs of just under an hour each, the 23 selections represent artists working in the U.S., Canada, England, the Netherlands and Australia. Most striking is the variety of moods evoked by animated, documentary, narrative and experimental films.
The animation exhibits the greatest range of style and substance. The most primitive, but no less impressive for it, is Ellen Ugelstad and Alfonso Alvarez's "Flip Film." As the title indicates, it borrows the 1890s Mutoscope approach to present a series of related photos and drawings. In one packed minute, "Flip Film" captures a busy bus trip, with nonsynchronous sound adding another dimension to the experience. For dramatic and stylistic contrast, Program 1 follows "Flip Film" with Nadia Roden's exquisite "Serenade." Through sumi-ink and charcoal drawings on paper, "Serenade" depicts a charming love story set to various musical numbers in 1930s New York. Still in Program 1, Helen Hill's "Mouseholes" combines cel animation, paper cut-outs, 3-D puppets and drawing directly on film with home movies to honor her grandfather's final days.
Equally strong animation enlivens Program 4. For example, Luke Jaeger illustrates a 1946 calypso tune, "Out the Fire," with amusing vignettes. While the New York Fire Department answers the alarm, citizens cavort, drink, dance and sway to the lyrics (subtitled in the film) that urge the firefighters on. Similarly, Lorelei Pepi's "Grace" uses unusual multimedia, and the hand-colored film in Tamara Tracy's "Slow Dance" effects the perfect mood for her two-minute lonely monologue. Not all of the animated/multimedia films so beautifully unite emotion, idea and form, but even the less successful pieces show bursts of strong creativity devoid of intrusive self-consciousness or dependence on high-tech computer manipulation.
As exceptional, the narratives and documentaries repeatedly surprise and please with their cleverness and skill. In Lucy Lehmann's "The Etiquette of Letter Writing," the contrast between the sweetly modulated voice-over directions, reminiscent of 1950s instructional films, and a deteriorating 1990s Alaska-Australia relationship invites the viewer to savor delicious ironies. And Paul Bonner's live-action "The Bottomless Cup" builds to a creepy realization in a Twilight Zone diner. Most chilling and poignant is Elida Schogt's "Zyklon Portrait," an artful documentary about the Nazi transformation of the pesticide Zyklon into a weapon of mass destruction. In an intercutting of Schogt's family's home movies and photographs with black-and-white scientific and news footage, the genocidal horror assumes a very personal face. Similarly, Jay Rosenblatt's "King of the Jews" combines well-chosen archival footage with personal recollection to reveal significant historical facets of anti-Semitism.
Throughout all four programs, superb sound complements the marvelous diversity and inventiveness. To a viewer, an appealing aspect of compilation programs is the preponderance of shorter works and our moving quickly along if one film fails to connect. But these selections are so rich that, as in the past, Ann Arbor's tour presents a consistently strong lineup, smoothly segueing from one theme to another. Seldom does a program bog down. We're left wanting more, not less.