After 'The BEGOTTEN,' Ann Arbor Film Co-op may fade to black
By CHRISTOPHER POTTER
NEWS ARTS WRITER
'We're still into the cult stuff. But maybe filmgoers here aren't into it anymore.' -Glenn Mensching, longtime AAFC member
Come Friday, Nov. 17, Arbor Film Co-op will screen the Michigan premiere of E. Elias Merhige’s “The Begotten,” a 1991 creation-of-the-world fantasy one reviewer dubbed a “metaphysical splatter film,” and which art critic Susan Sontag hailed as “one of the 10 most important films of modern times.”
In content and style, “The Begotten” is utterly in keeping with Ann Arbor Film Co-op’s tradition of seeking out imaginative, off-center, different-drummer cinema.
It may also be the last motion picture AAFC will ever present.
“Basically, we’re out of money,” says Kevin Lee, a six-year Co-op mainstay. “It’s looking pretty bad, and we’re just about ready to throw in the towel. At the very least we’ll have to suspend operations after showing ‘The Begotten.’
“And the saddest thing is we probably won’t be missed. Our board membership is less than half the size it used to be, and we can’t find anybody new willing to join.”
AAFC’s demise would make it the latest casualty in the erosion of The University of Michigan’s once-flourishing film societies. Fifteen years ago, at least half a dozen film groups were prominent on campus showing nightly movies. Today only two remain: AAFC and the venerable Cinema Guild, which isn’t in super shape itself.
“Students just don’t come to our shows (most at U-M’s Angell Hall) any more, and I don’t know why,” laments Co-op President Ben Robinson. “Most of those who do
show up are ex-students or faculty or non-student Ann Arbor residents. About the only thing that still brings undergrads in are porn films.” (AAFC will offer “M 3-D! The Movie,” described as an “X-rated Sextravaganza,” tonight.)
Why this erosion in a town with a reputation for its love of cinema?
“Obviously part of the problem is the advent of video,” says Glenn Mensching, a longtime force at AAFC who who now calls himself “a kind of member emeritus.” The irony, he adds, “is that a lot of the films we show aren’t available on video.” “It seems like the students don’t care,” Lee adds. “When we were trying to recruit new members, one girl said, ‘I’m a film major, but I see enough films in class.’ I think a lot of film-studies students are as hooked as the general public on splashy-color attention-grabbing Hollywood movies. They aren’t interested in the obscure stuff.”
The Film Co-op unofficially celebrated its 25th year in 1994 - although “nobody’s absolutely certain when we started,” says Mensching. “But things have gotten really bleak, and it’s a continuation of a pattern that’s been going on for years.
“It was always our mission to show cult cinema, and showcase filmmakers who wouldn’t get much chance to be seen elsewhere. And we’re still into the cult stuff. But maybe filmgoers here aren’t into it anymore.”
According to Robinson, “We tried everything” to stir up interest in “Chicken Hawk,” a fascinating, scary documentary of a gay pedophile association. “We really did a media saturation. And nobody showed up.
“No one seems aware of us, no one looks for us, no one expects us to do anything. We’ve had turnouts of three or four people for some films.”
“I don’t think it’s a void that can be filled,” says Cinema Guild’s John Carlos Cantu, whose writing on arts appears in the Ann Arbor News. The classics-oriented film group is now down to one screening a week. “It’s really tragic,” Cantu adds. “The Co-op was bringing in films no one else in Michigan would think of showing. We don’t realize how lucky we’ve been. The Co-op gave a voice to displaced filmmakers.”
Robinson and Lee hope to revive AAFC for the winter semester, with the help of no-charge screening venues and filmmakers willing to have their work shown for free. But the situation isn’t good. “We don’t want it to die," says Robinson, “but it doesn’t seem that Ann Arbor wants the service we offer.”