As a film projectionist, Frank Uhle has spent untold hours showing movies for audiences of all stripes. Now, he has stepped out from the cramped projection booth to showcase the 90-year history of cinema in Ann Arbor with his first book, “Cinema Ann Arbor: How Campus Rebels Forged a Singular Film Culture.”
Uhle and his 95-year-old father before him were both members of film clubs while attending the University of Michigan. Uhle inherited his father’s love for film, and his dad was one of the more than 80 individuals he interviewed while writing the 334-page book.
The word “rebels” in the book’s title provides some insight into its content, which covers a movement one would expect to emerge from New York or Los Angeles — not a small Midwestern city. In essence, the book tells the history of the student film movement at the University of Michigan and how it spilled over into the rest of Ann Arbor, spawning the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
“The film culture in Ann Arbor was innovative, often controversial and never dull,” Uhle said.
The stories of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground showing up for a screening at a 1966 film festival exemplify the movement’s importance, as do film entries from the avant-garde Fluxus group — including two by Yoko Ono.
Like most college film clubs, the earliest versions at the University of Michigan showed silent and foreign movies that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. Names like François Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman were mentioned in hushed tones. Later, the clubs would screen first-run movies, often before they were shown at big-screen theaters in New York.
The ‘60s and ‘70s were outrageous times for movie-club culture, with screenings that often exceeded what was considered pornographic, such as “I, a Woman” and “I Am Curious (Yellow).”
One great illustration in the book depicts Cinema Guild member Hugh Cohen’s 1967 mugshot. Cohen was among a group of members who were arrested for showing “Flaming Creatures,” an over-the-top, avant-garde art film that contains graphic sexual scenes. The cops must have missed earlier performances by the dazzling University of Michigan student, part-time stripper and early performance artist Pat Olesko, who was known as “Hippie Strippy.” At the time, she was at the forefront of guerilla-style multimedia performances.
Cohen would go on to teach an introduction to film class at the university, and he’s still teaching at 92.
Uhle was inspired to take on the massive book project when he began writing a magazine-length history of his audio-visual department for the University of Michigan’s bicentennial in 2017. Then COVID struck, and he kept on writing, buoyed by what he calls his “detective and research skills” that he developed while getting his library science degree.
He said the university’s Joseph A. Labadie Collection of Social Protest, along with its Screen Arts Mavericks and Makers collection, proved invaluable resources, as did the digitized version of The Michigan Daily, which covered the various film clubs’ activities.
He also made connections with former members and leaders of the film-club movement, who had their own personal archives. One former leader dropped off six boxes of material, and Cohen’s spouse had compiled a 6-inch-thick scrapbook of film-club activities over the years.
Among those Uhle interviewed was the award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, who, as a teenager, was an avid filmgoer at the university. He attributed some of his style to those early days of watching movies on campus.
Another interviewee was Jay Cassidy, who went on to edit “American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “A Star is Born” and other popular films.
Uhle said he believes the film societies and clubs were successful because they were more than just “cheap entertainment.”
“The societies were independent from the university, showing what they wanted. They were the antithesis of what a college would want,” he said. “Today, film societies at colleges and universities are kind of tepid, and it’s more college kids hanging out with their buddies.”
He attributes some of that to the digital age, where everything is available to screen at home.
Uhle’s book was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Alice Award. Unlike a lot of book awards, the Alice Award comes with a $25,000 prize, and just being shortlisted earns authors $5,000.
The award recognizes books that not only have high standards of production but also contribute to the slow-reading movement, which “recognizes and cherishes the lasting values of the well-made illustrated book and the special sense of intimacy it affords,” according to the Alice Award website.
Uhle’s book qualifies on both counts: It’s beautiful to page through and even better to read. It’s more than a history book — it’s a deep dive into a film culture that permeated Ann Arbor for more than nine decades.
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