Author Frank Uhle’s New Book Documents Ann Arbor’s Vibrant Cinema Scene

Film societies were the epitome of cool in their heyday — a time when filmmaking could be a rebellious act.

In 2017, when the University of Michigan celebrated its bicentennial, author Frank Uhle noted that now-defunct film societies were one thing absent from the celebration of nearly every aspect of campus life.

Ann Arbor itself has had an unusually rich history of film societies, avant-garde films, and festivals making the omission much more glaring.

Uhle had been involved in the campus film society, Cinema II, at the University of Michigan in the seventies and by the eighties was working as a projectionist, writer, and ultimately a cultural historian.

To preserve the memory of the movement he’d once been a part of, Uhle set out to document its history and discovered film societies stretching back to 1932. This became the genesis of his book, “Cinema Ann Arbor – How Campus Rebels Formed a Singular Film Culture,” to be released this June.

“Art Cinema League (ALC) began in 1932 showing art films that you wouldn’t get to see in a regular theater by people who didn’t want to take a chance on showing an Eisenstein film not a lot of people had heard of,” Uhle said.

The University had an auditorium and the equipment to show these films to students who wanted to see what foreign filmmakers were doing. These screenings became a part of campus life and a sought-after venue to experience films rarely seen here. In the late 40s, a few commercial theaters opened that showed imported films, and in the 1950s the ACL became Cinema Guild for the next generation of students.

In the mid-sixties, the studio system in Hollywood was faltering and a new wave of European films sent students flocking to see exciting, experimental foreign films.

“In Ann Arbor, there were places to see the new Bergman or Kurosawa films, but students and professors wanted to screen whole series’ of Goddard or Truffaut films,” Uhle said. By the late sixties, students were making their own 16 mm films, documentaries were becoming more political, and through the medium of film, this generation was announcing themselves as a cultural force.”  

“When I was ten years old, my dad took me to see ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ and it was like no movie I’d ever seen,” Uhle said. “It blew my mind — all the things you could do with film! I convinced my parents to get me a super-8 movie camera and started making movies in my backyard.”

These little flashes of exposure to unconventional cinema stuck with Uhle. Passing on that intense love of cinema to a new generation is no doubt the other reason for this book.

“You can’t imagine how big these film societies were when I went to school, they were the center of the action,” Uhle said. “At campus auditoriums, on any night of the week, there were lines out the door to see the new movie from Sweden or some one-of-a-kind movie the director was speaking at. The movies were a powerful part of the cultural mix.” 

Uhle interviewed over 80 people for the book, and the further he delved into writing, the more stories emerged from people who spoke passionately about their time in Cinema Guild discovering films with like-minded people.

Editor Jay Cassidy (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) and legendary documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, happily volunteered to share memories of their tenure in film societies at the University. While interviewing film critic Owen Gleiberman over dinner, Gleiberman and his 92-year-old former film professor passionately discussed film for four hours.

Uhle laments that for the most part, those film groups aren’t around anymore. 

“I did a panel at the Ann Arbor Film Festival with a good turnout. At the end, a small group of students approached me about starting a film society and that’s a good sign,” Uhle said.

The book documents an important time in the culture of movie-going, but it’s also his way of passing on an art form that shouldn’t be lost.

Movies are meant to be a group experience, seen in a theater. It’s why we linger and talk about it with a friend or a stranger after the lights come up, not quite wanting to break the spell the experience has cast on us. Frank Uhle’s book “Cinema Ann Arbor – How Campus Rebels Formed a Singular Film Culture” is a must for cinema lovers.


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