Rebels with a Reel Cause: The University of Michigan’s Film Societies

Local historian Frank Uhle takes a deep dive into the rise and sort-of fall of U-M’s film societies.
Cover courtesy of University of Michigan Publishing

Because a friend across the hall my freshman year (’89-90) was both a film studies major and a member of the University of Michigan’s hallowed Cinema Guild, I saw a lot of cultish, foreign, and off-the-beaten-path movies on campus.

And classic flicks at the lavish Michigan Theater.

And newer offerings at the State, the now-defunct Ann Arbor 1 & 2 (where I relished ordering an Afternoon Delight muffin), and Tree Town’s far-flung multiplexes.

So although the VHS revolution was underway and campus film groups were on the downslide, I may nonetheless be among the ideal readers for Frank Uhle’s book, Cinema Ann Arbor: How Campus Rebels Forged a Singular Film Culture, published earlier this year and a recent recipient of a Michigan State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan.

The book traces film’s first forays into U-M’s campus life; its heyday, by way of ludicrously active (read: seven nights per week of programming) student film societies; the consequent rise of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, local filmmaker culture, and U-M’s (late to the party) film department and archive; and finally, the painfully slow demise of campus film groups.

If this sounds a little inside baseball to you, well, you’re not wrong. But for those who enjoy the occasional trip down a very specific rabbit hole, this exhaustively researched and thoughtfully structured exploration of Ann Arbor film culture will likely satisfy.

As Uhle explains in his introduction, the seed for his book was planted while he was researching a small project that would be part of U-M’s big bicentennial celebration in 2017: “I began finding interesting documents from the film societies themselves, … but when I opened a folder of yellowed clippings marked ‘Moving Pictures,’ I was genuinely shocked to discover that their history stretched back further than I ever imagined. The collected newspaper articles, ads, and bits of ephemera were from a group called Art Cinema League, which had been launched in 1932.”

Yes, in a time when film wasn’t yet considered a serious art form, a female U-M graduate (1922), Amy Loomis, was charged with planning events for the performance space at the Michigan League (i.e., Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre) and decided to start showing art films. This led to the formation of Art Cinema League, which would later become Cinema Guild.

Though Cinema Guild (and other student film groups that launched later) flourished on campus, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, it also sometimes courted local controversy. In 1967, for instance, the group’s attempt to screen a 43-minute experimental film called Flaming Creatures resulted in a police showdown, a 100-person march and sit-in, and three students and their adviser being charged with showing an “obscene, lewd, filthy, and indecent motion picture.”

The whole affair ultimately ended with a whimper, and the door to porn-ish films occasionally being screened on campus was thus nudged open.

Meanwhile, at around this time, Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground returned to Ann Arbor for a second performance (following one at the film festival two years earlier), and just a bit further down the road, big-name filmmakers like Frank Capra, Jean Luc-Godard, Robert Altman, and Samuel Fuller visited U-M’s campus.

But Cinema Ann Arbor also covers squabbles among film presenters; occasional grift; how politics and music intersected with the local film culture; the impact of local commercial theaters as they adapted to the changing times; and the videocassette as a nail in the film groups’ collective coffin.

That Uhle covers so much ground in depth, in a way that keeps the material clear, is an achievement in itself.

My one quibble with Cinema Ann Arbor is that it ends with the sad, wistful demise of student film groups in the mid-aughts.

While this might feel like a natural end point given much of the book’s focus, it was hardly the end of Ann Arbor’s fervent film culture. Indeed, in 2007, the Ann Arbor Film Festival went head-to-head with a Michigan politician who argued that state funding should be blocked for three years because the fest showed “pornography” (sound familiar?). The Michigan Theater’s leadership, over the years, cultivated such a strong relationship with the Sundance Film Festival that longtime Michigan Theater Foundation CEO (and U-M grad) Russ Collins founded and led a national conference in partnership with Sundance called Art House Convergence. And the art deco State Theatre, purchased by the Michigan Theater in 2014 (and originally built in 1942), was fully renovated and reopened for business in December 2017.

While these institutions may not have direct ties with the campus film societies that once made Ann Arbor a film lover’s dream, I’d nonetheless argue that their continued survival and longevity owe no small debt to the communal excitement those groups once planted and then nurtured into future generations.

I mean, it’s probably not merely a coincidence that Ann Arbor is still, to this day, one of my favorite places to see a movie.

This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.