When I was a U-M undergraduates in the mid'70s, the Ann Arbor Film Festival was pretty much a mandatory event. My friends and I would shoulder our way into the jammed Lorch Hall corridor and gaze at the bizarre artwork on display as we filed into the auditorium. We 'd be high, of course - what better way to absorb the hours of abstract images, wild animation or cinema verité onscreen? Between shows, a ta.ll blond woman named Pat Oleszko would strip off bizarre, elabórate costumes to the music of a piano player named Blue Gene Tyranny, in order to reveal still more bizarre, elabórate costumes. We didn't know it, but a tcchnical wizard named Peter Wilde was orches tratin g the whole event firom his projection booth perch, and a nerdy-looking art professor named George Manupelli was present to makc sure things stayed fairly crazy. At times I suspected that the whole event was a monumental joke on the audiencc, and I didn't al way s understand the films, but one thing was certain: this was more fun than seeing "Saturday Night Fever" at Briarwood. Now - 15 years later - Manupelli is teaching in Toronto, Oleszko and Blue Gene Tyranny are plying their trades as successful New York artists, and Wilde- who left town in 1983- is dead. After returning to Ann Arbor in the early '80s, I stopped going to the festival for a while, and by the time I started attending again, it had moved to the cavemous Michigan Theater. But not much else has changed. The films, for one thing, seem even better. This is probably a false perception; by all accounts there are fewer people working in experimental film these days (economie pressures and the encroachment of video are the main reasons), and making personal statements on 16mm film stock is even less of a viable career option now than it was in the '70s . My ne w appreciation of the genre, I think, results from maturity. It's easier to appreciate irony and self-parody (essential qualities in experimental film) after turning 30 than at 18, just as it gets harder and harder to sit through an earnest, technically perfect and smugly obvious ven Spielberg film. Experimental films, by their nature, comment on and subvert mass culture, and that's something we may need to appreciate more as we get older and our lives are governed more and more by routines and encroaching cynicism. The festival also provides continuity. It's now in its 28th year, and the rimáis and habits that Manupelli and nis friends starled in the early '60s are still faithfully adhered to. These include: regular live music and dance performances, strange and provocatíve lobby artwork, the acceptance and encouragementof raucous audience participa - tion, and a general party atmosphere free of any sort of pretensión or elitism. Festival posters and programs still sport the kind of whimsical, oblique imagery that Manupelli once crafted. The screening committee, an unsung group of six or seven bleary-eyed film nuts who review the hundreds of festival entries, still ruthlessly removes more conventional film offerings so that the public screenings will contain only the "purest" of experimental films, even (especially?) if that adds to the general level of incomprehension. The festival has survived without selling out, has maintained high artistic standares, and enjoys an international reputation, all without taking itself too seriously. It's still weird and it's still ours, and I can't wait for the projectors to roll.
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