Down in front

Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 am

As most major film festivals have evolved into movable feasts of paparazzi, partygoers and goodie bags so swag-laden they could be declared on one's taxes, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has remained stubbornly committed to the notion of art for art's sake.

The back cover of this year's festival guide sports a timeline that proudly trumpets the event's experimental bona fides, from such fringesters as '60s heads Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Yoko Ono and Kenneth Anger, to George Lucas' stunning techno-futurist student short THX1138 to the splashy muckraking of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Forty-six years on, the original subversive festival still engages audiences and incites controversy, from the mirthful theater aisles to the rankled corridors of power.

In fact, the last few years have been the most contentious in the festival's history, after a long and nasty First Amendment struggle with elements of the state Legislature. In 2006, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs slashed government funding for the event, citing content that was deemed politically contentious, in turn the AAFF chose to reject state money for two years. The festival organizers scrambled for new sources of revenue through its witty crusade called the Endangered Campaign, while simultaneously suing the state over the constitutionality of the censorship guidelines used against them. With legal backing from the ACLU, the fest scored a victory, forcing the MCACA to alter its vague rules and restrictions, and to adopt language and policy more closely in step with that of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Yet despite very noisy public acrimony, the storm is settling; the Endangered Campaign hit its goal of $75,000 and the first page of the 2008 program features prominently a warm endorsement message from Gov. Granholm. AAFF executive director Christen McArdle is thankful for the vocal support and is able to dispel any lingering bad feelings.

"It's not like the entire state of Michigan is against the film festival, it was a few legislators that had an agenda, and we called them out on that agenda," McArdle says. Her hope is that the storm is ebbing.

"For a minute we were a hot potato but I think at this point everyone knows our intention, and we have friends in the state as well." To McArdle, the mission of the moment's moving forward "now that the issue has past and agendas are off the table, I think that a lot of people understand that this is an important organization to the state and to the region. We're a beacon of light to people outside the area, to an international audience that are now talking about Ann Arbor and Michigan."

And McArdle's not speaking in PR-ease. The six-day festival — with its 40-plus programs, multiple world premieres and 100 indie films (out of more than 2,000 submissions from nearly two dozen countries) competing for $18,000 in prize money — is something. We're lucky to have it.

But lest anyone imagine that the show is suddenly all sweetness and light, or in danger of going soft, one need only look at Saturday night's headlining feature, Larry Flynt: The Right to be Left Alone (7:30 p.m., Michigan Theater).

How better to salute the vitality of free speech than a look at one of its staunchest champions, the valiant, crazy, unrepentant sleazebag Flynt? The corpse of Flynt's longtime adversary may well be heard spinning underground during the airing of a film that celebrates one of the nation's proudest smut peddlers, from the founding of his skin-mag empire to his attempted assassination, drug problems and ongoing war with hypocritical politicians.

Freedom of expression is addressed in a very different fashion by director Jim Finn's The Juche Idea, which makes its world premiere at 7 p.m., Saturday in the Michigan Theater Screening Room, as part of the Conspiracy Countdown spotlight. The film is a captivating peek into the rarely seen corners of North Korea, one the most isolated nations on earth, with a focus on state mandated arts projects. Finn has pulled together piles of archival clips going all the way back to the 1950s, with a heavy emphasis on the insane pageantry and curious beauty of the propaganda favored by tiny tyrant Kim Jong-il. Scenes from highly silted, soap opera-like movies are juxtaposed with pages of the diminutive despot's philosophical ramblings about splendor of the state which must always be renowned above all else.

The haunted streets of Pyongyang, with their towering concrete monuments and massive boulevards, are certainly fascinating, but at a scant 62 minutes there's a sense that the movie is barely scrapping the edges of an unexplored world.

Even if Juche is merely a snapshot, it may be the most fitting example of what the AAFF hopes to achieve — that it's giving audiences myriad glimpses of places, styles and lives that they wouldn't have discovered on their own. As McArdle says, "What we want to do is kind of expand your official vision of the world, to see things in a new way and that can mean a lot of things from the experimental to the narrative that opens your eyes."

Nothing serves that objective better than shorts, the kind of quick, quirky bursts of invention showcased in Thursday night's Cracking Space-Time Continuum program, with collections of geographically diverse entries united by a desire to play with the medium of film. The envelope gets pushed even further by Sandra Gibson and Luis Reorder, who combine film and fine arts technique into performance works that center on the interplay of light and form in truly groundbreaking ways — and that's no easy task.

For the slightly less adventurous there are the cuddly and weird short cartoons of Bill Plympton. Once considered an outsider, Plympton's homey, hand-drawn 'toons have made him an animation idol in the last two decades, and the artist himself will be on hand to discuss his career, his creative process and to share a half-dozen pieces, including some that have never been seen. In fact Plympton's huge success has sometimes overshadowed other animators who often toil in obscurity.

McArdle sees nothing wrong with a bit of mainstream success, or with an artist making a profit from their work, particularly if it helps to bring attention to other artists. In short, animation puts butts in the seats: "There's so much curiosity about it and so many techniques (in animation), that it's always the most fun," she says.

With the generous funding of hundreds of donors and sponsors, the festival is back on solid footing, but it won't stay that way if attendance starts to flag. McArdle's keenly aware of this.

"In the last ten years, there are festivals popping up everywhere; there are over two thousand in the United States, and it's starting to be a punch-line in the industry. You have to have an honesty about it — with festivals on every street corner — it's really important to maintain an identity, which I think is why Variety named us one of the ten best festivals in the world."

After nearly a half-century, the Ann Arbor Film Festival shows few or no signs of petering out or surrendering to commercial pressures, yet the challenge now seems to be finding new ways to outdo themselves, to keep mutating and growing.

Will it ever run out of conventions to break? Christen McArdle hopes that question never gets an answer. "How many are left to break, who knows?" she says. "But I think with technology changing so much, and there are so many resources for filmmakers, with new styles of exhibition, it's a question of how will people come up with new ideas, though it's clear they always do."

The AAFF runs through March 30, at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor) and other Ann Arbor locations. For a complete schedule, program and ticket information, go to

Corey Hall is a Metro Times film critic. Send comments to [email protected]