Don’t let the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s longevity fool you into thinking it’s grown stodgy. The digital video explosion of recent years has caused a major shift in the fest’s focus, turning what was once a purists-only festival into a showcase for some of the most cutting-edge work in the world, whittled down from some 1,900 entries.
As one of the fest’s jurors, Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette will be on hand at 3 p.m., Friday, March 18, to screen some of his other works and answer questions from the audience. On March 19 — dubbed “Activist Night” by the fest’s special programs director, Chrisstina Hamilton — two feature-length docs cater to the Whole Foods and NORML crowds, respectively. The Future of Food (8 p.m.) is a pro-organic plea — directed by Jerry Garcia’s widow, Deborah Koons Garcia — that makes an informed if inelegant case against genetic crop modification. But the film documents how extensively farmers are controlled by just a handful of major corporations. Following that screening, Jed Riffe’s intimate Waiting to Inhale (10 p.m.) chronicles the travails of benevolent medical marijuana users targeted by the DEA.
Though not a documentary, Andrea Arnold’s Oscar-winner Wasp (March 19, 3:30 p.m.) is a true stunner, an ultra-realistic portrayal of an irresponsible, lower-class British single mom. Charting the other side of the psychological coin is the eerie, near-silent, Sugar (March 17, 10 p.m.), which received much acclaim at this year’s Sundance festival. Directed by New York experimental filmmakers Patrick Jolley and Reynold Reynolds, the stark, grimy psychological thriller features a haunting lead performance from elfin former Ann Arborite Samara Golden as a slum-dwelling woman confronted with the mystery of a dead body.
The fest’s other, darker half is best represented by guest Crispin Glover. A recording artist, filmmaker, sometime author and full-time obscurantist, Glover seems like the bastard child of Dennis Hopper and David Lynch, and he finally has his very own feature to prove it. Years in the making, What Is It? (9:30 p.m., March 19) is true to its title. Harmony Korine’s avant-garde cult oddity Gummo pales in comparison to this: Glover takes viewers on a tour of the disgusting, the disturbing and the absurd, alternating footage of dissolving snails and nude, monster-masked women with Nazi paraphernalia, minstrels and actors with Down syndrome.
A bizarre provocation, What Is It? sets the tone for some of the fest’s short entries. Showing before Glover’s film is the dreamy, hypnotic short Mirror, from world-renowned experimental filmmakers Christoph Girardet and Matthias Mueller. Certainly one of the duo’s most polished works, the film presents almost still-life photography of elegant party guests contrasted with the evocatively lit interior of an ornate hotel; it’s like The Shining without a story or dialogue. Courtney Egan’s Big Schtick (March 19, 7 p.m.) contrasts footage from Full Metal Jacket and countless other films with cartoons, drawing out an obvious phallic connection between guns, sticks and other movie implements. A better Freudian allegory is Ann Arbor filmmaker Sean Stewart’s Relish (March 18, 7 p.m.), a lush, fetishistic collection of close-ups of hot dogs, soap pumps and condiments. The orgiastic voice-over underlines Stewart’s intentions a little too bluntly, but the film is a promising discovery — precisely the sort that the AAFF is here to make.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].