The Big House

Unbeknownst to many, Ann Arbor is a bastion of experimental film. Between the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the University of Michigan, a healthy community has evolved over generations. AAFF is the oldest experimental film festival and the fourth oldest of any film festival in the country. Artists who have shown work at AAFF include Agnes Varda, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Gus Van Sant, Barbara Hammer, Devo and George Lucas. The Best of the Festival Award is sponsored by Ken Burns, an Ann Arbor native. Michael Moore sponsors the Best Documentary Award. You could say it’s the pinnacle of the experimental film world.

“14 students and three instructors produced a documentary that premiered at Berlin Critics’ Week…”

A few blocks away from the Michigan Theater, where the festival is held, you can find the material archives of Orson Welles, Robert Altman, John Sayles, Alan Rudolph and Nancy Savoca in the library of The University of Michigan. Philip Hallman, Film Studies Field Librarian and Curator for the Screen Arts Mavericks & Makers, manages a collection which includes 20,000 DVDs, 3,000 screenplays, and an archival film print collection. Michigan’s film department, Screen Arts & Cultures, is equally unsung. The program takes students to the Toronto International Film Festival every year, and student-directed films are commonly accepted into major film festivals. One student even became an extraordinary film critic at Film Threat. But the latest product from the Ann Arbor campus breaks new ground.

In a small basement classroom, 14 students and three instructors produced a documentary that premiered at Berlin Critics’ Week in February and will be theatrically released in Japan in June. That means 14 students, along with Professor Markus Nornes, Professor Terri Sarris, and Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda will be able to add a director credit to IMDB for a film with real distribution. Not bad for a three-credit course.

Image credit: graphic design by Wang Wo

Much more “beknownst” than Ann Arbor’s experimental film scene is the school’s football legacy. With 11 national titles, Michigan football is one of the most successful, storied athletic programs in the country. Accordingly, they play in an epic coliseum – the country’s largest with an official capacity of 107,601. As Nornes put it, the spectacle was “just waiting to be captured”.

The Big House is a two-hour observational documentary that examines the stadium and its cacophonous, banal, and ceremonial traditions through an army of lenses. Although empty most of the year, the gargantuan structure plays host to a handful of primetime competitions on sporadic Saturdays in the fall. On a few of these occasions, the class was dispatched to capture en masse the culture that surrounds the main event. The result is a surprisingly cohesive, omniscient document of an American phenomenon.

Courtesy The Big House

This kind of collaboration with students wasn’t entirely new for Professor Sarris, who had already worked with a group of students on Sultan Sharrief’s feature-length narrative film Bilal’s Stand, which screened as part of the inaugural <Next> program at Sundance 2010. However, the course, production, and subject were the initiative of Professor Nornes, who approached Sarris with the idea in February 2016. Nornes, a scholar of Japanese cinema, had already nominated Peabody Award-winner Kazuhiro Soda, whom he had known from the festival circuit, for a Visiting Professorship.

“…a surprisingly cohesive, omniscient document of an American phenomenon.”

The production and curriculum revolved around the concept of Direct Cinema. The first feature-length film they screened in class was Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan. Sarris explained that they chose this film, which is often described as sensory ethnography, “to really immerse students in the idea of directly capturing visceral experience (which being on the field during a game at The Big House truly is!)”. She added that “one of the student directors, Sean Moore, was so inspired by the style of Leviathan that while covering the kitchen with its many hard-working employees who wash all of the dishes, had the idea to put a Go-Pro camera THROUGH the dishwasher.”

Throughout the semester-long course, they watched observational classics such as Frederick Wiseman’s High School, D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter, Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ The War Room, Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, and Wiseman’s Domestic Violence. They also studied Soda’s own films Oyster Factory, Campaign, and Mental. With permission, I’ve included a full list of Direct Cinema recommendations from the syllabus as an appendix, and a football schedule with shoot dates in bold below:

UM Football Schedule Fall 2016

Sept 3—Hawaii
Sept 10—UCF Knights
Sept 17—Colorado – Scout
Sept 24—Penn State
Oct 1—Wisconsin shoot
Oct 8—At Rutgers
Oct 15—no game
Oct 22—Illinois shoot
Oct 29—At MSU
Nov 5—Maryland (?)
Nov 12—At Iowa
Nov 19—Indiana
Nov 26—At Ohio State
Dec 3—At Indianapolis

The primary challenge of the classroom production was to coalesce the camerawork of 17 individuals with varying levels of experience and a range of cameras. Conveniently, Soda had a list of Ten Commandments of Observational Filmmaking, which became the unifying force for the diverse group of camera operators.

Credit: Taylor Savvy

Soda’s Ten Commandments:

  1. No research.
  2. No meetings with subjects.
  3. No scripts.
  4. Roll the camera yourself.
  5. Shoot for as long as possible.
  6. Cover small areas deeply.
  7. Do not set up a theme or goal before editing.
  8. No narration, super-imposed titles, or music.
  9. Use long takes.
  10. Pay for the production yourself.

After the first game, the class reviewed their footage and found that “students were inclined to shoot short shots,” said Sarris, which explicitly violated the Fifth Commandment. With the lesson learned, the student camera army was deployed twice more, returning with a massive trove of material for lead editor Soda and his student assistants to etch from over the following semester. Soda referred to the result as “Cubist Cinema”, a collage of interlocking viewpoints.

Members of the SAC 401 class

What separates The Big House from most films in the canon of Direct Cinema is the scope with which they could capture a single event. With 17 autonomous cameras, they simultaneously covered every obvious angle and then more, delivering intentionally diverse visions of the same subject.

Courtesy The Big House

The film starts in an airplane, the stadium just a bean on the earth below. Quickly we tumble towards the throbbing mass that awaits our flying para-jumper turned cameraman attached to an enormous blue and gold Michigan flag. We see him gliding down from a multitude of angles below and then the abundance of camera operators on the field. As he lands, the cheerleaders, the band, and the 100,000+ crowd are just hitting their stride and the game is about to begin. Lights, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, camera, action.

Courtesy The Big House

The film gradually passes through one and a half games, beginning with a fire alarm test, catching the pre and post-game routines, and ending midway through another game three weeks later. We witness gameday operations, food services, band practice, the PA announcer, and the medical team amidst the mayhem of Michigan devotion. The periphery of the stadium plays host to the more eccentric characters: sidewalk evangelists, kids selling candy bars, pickup truck parade floats covered with Trump insignia. In the weeks between, believers attend a football-themed mass, the football helmets get re-painted, troves of volunteers clean the stadium.

As the second game begins, the cyclical nature of the pandemonium becomes evident. The excitement on the field contrasts sharply with the inevitable routines that surround. The film closes with a long time-lapse of the crowd filling the stadium. The tide pool fills and then releases.

Filmed during the fall of 2016, the production coincided with the election of Donald Trump. A Japanese television documentary followed Soda through the production and the parallel political upheaval. He walks by lawn signs explaining the context of “Hillary 2016” and “We Welcome Muslim Refugees”. After the surprise victory for the contentious outsider candidate, the periphery of the stadium became a battleground for the emboldened supporters and the devastated opposition. An alternate cut of the film included a political epilogue showing confrontations outside the stadium and protests in the streets – a drastic departure from the prior two hours.

The Japanese documentary captured an evolving debate between Soda and the students about whether to include the political finale. On one hand, it emphasized the “microcosm of America” aspect that Nornes had mentioned. One student appreciated “the difference between the unity inside and the ugly politics outside”. But the majority felt that it left an aftertaste that was too bitter. Vesal Stoakley, one of the student-directors who is also credited as an assistant editor, even considered dropping out of school after the election. Ultimately, they decided to leave the alternate ending on the DVD extras.

Stoakley, despite his dismay with the new regime, remained in school and found profound inspiration during the production of The Big House. Many of the of the Direct Cinema practices learned from the course became instrumental in the development of his own style, “a cinema of observations”, and informed his thesis project, an original screenplay called Shelter in Place. I’ll leave you with a distillation of the concepts from the classroom that he generously provided in his own words. Many thanks to Kazuhiro Soda, Terri Sarris, Markus Nornes, and Vesal Stoakley for extensively sharing their experiences with Film Threat.

Vesal Stoakley’s Cinema of Observations:

SPATIAL VERISIMILITUDE – Long takes give the audience a sense of geography on screen, to help situate subjects in their environment. This is really important because you’re world-building and trying to give an audience insight into the connections between people and spaces so they can exist there over the course of the film. 

FOUND HUMOR – People existing in what seem to be rather routine circumstances are often quietly struggling to accomplish a particular something. Many of them cope with their personal anxieties and momentary frustrations with a rich sense of humor. A good example of this is the Bongoman sequence in The Big House. He’s forgotten his gloves before coming to town for the game and he struggles, with good humor, to find a pair.

MULTIPURPOSE SPACES – Showing how a space develops and is used in a multitude of ways gives that space a temporal significance. In The Big House, the stadium was that most essential of spaces and showing that space before the game, while the fire alarm system was doing its checks, was a part of that process. Interestingly, in an earlier cut of the film, we had two scenes of pre-game meetings on the separate game days. Since there wasn’t enough difference between the two meetings, you didn’t get enough of this multipurposeness. It wasn’t as interesting to see it the second time on screen for that reason, so we cut it to help the flow of the film. In the editing process, you’re making a lot of these consequential decisions, trying to understand an audience’s thinking before you’ve presented them with the experience. The more films you make, the better those instincts get. A film education really helps with that too, because you’re exposed to that aspect of cinema through screenings and discussion in a critical way.

INBETWEENESS – Where I feel more traditional documentary sticks to the development of its narrated thesis pretty rigorously, direct cinema is much more focused on the context with which the subject exists. That means showing the viewers the cracks in the subject’s facade as much as the facade itself. Where small moments in a traditional documentary would be excised in the editing process, direct cinema examines those small moments and peculiarities much more closely. Working with filmmakers as rigorous as Soda, Markus, and Terri, we were able to capitalize on a lot of those small moments in the footage and bring those forward for our audience. it makes a huge difference in the final experience the audience has.

OBSERVATION & CALIBRATION – An audience approaches any film with a set of expectations, based on how films traditionally operate and what the audience has seen before. Honing the views the audience is given in direct cinema is particularly critical, because that’s where the film’s thesis emerges from. When working in direct cinema, you’re trying to develop a new, stronger set of eyes with which to see the world. That’s the unique experience that lends itself to the audience in viewing a subject on screen. They would be much less likely to have that same experience without the film. That’s what you call worth the price of admission 🙂 This came heavily into play in creating a balance in how we presented the political content in The Big House. The way we did it, that content is carefully woven through in a way that makes it more apolitical and experiential.

ENERGY – Since direct cinema focuses so heavily on the context of the subject, it ends up producing a byproduct of what you’d loosely call the film’s energy. it’s kind of like rubbing two sticks together to get a spark that then starts the fire. That experience translates in a very pure way to the audience. It’s a big part of what makes direct cinema so unique. it does take some patience to allow that experience and understanding to happen, but when it does the emotional payoff is much greater also.

AMERICAN ART FORM – The development of direct cinema is very much rooted in American history uniquely. It’s a rich part of the legacy of American identity that really should be celebrated much more than it is through its continued practice. The larger challenges we face today really demand more of a ‘cinema of observations’ and direct cinema, because they so rigorously help us to better situate ourselves in the complexities of the modern world. It privileges the subject’s experience and reality. Its fly-on-the-wall approach can really take you anywhere you need to go.

Other Direct Cinema films for your future enjoyment (hardly an exhaustive list):

Kazuhiro Soda: Peace (2010), Theater 1 & 2 (2012), Campaign 2 (2013)

Drew Associates Films: Primary (1960), On the Pole (1960), ABC Series Close-up: Yanki No! (1960), X-Pilot (1960), The Children Were Watching· (1960), Adventures on the New Frontier (1961), Kenya, Africa (1961), On the Road to Button Bay (1962), Living Camera Series: Eddie (1961), David (1961), Petey and Johnny (1961), Football (Mooney Vs. Fowle) (1961), Blackie (1962), Susan Starr  (1962), Nehru (1962), The Aga Kahn (1962), Jane (1962), The Chair (1963), Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)

Maysles Brothers: Showman (1962), What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964), Meet Marlon Brando (1964), Salesman (1969), Grey Gardens (1975), The Gates (2007), And more!

A. Pennebaker and Chris Hedgedus: Elizabeth and Mary (1965), Monterey Pop (1968), Original Cast Album: Company! (1970), Keep on Rockin’ (1970), The Children’s Theater of John Donahue (1972), Moon Over Broadway, And more!

Richard Leacock: Happy Mother’s Day (1963), A Stravinsky Portrait (1966), Campaign Manager (Republicans – The New Breed!) (1964), Ku Klux Klan – The Invisible Empire (1965), Chiefs (1969), And more!

Frederick Wiseman: Titicutt Follies (1967), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Essene (1972), Meat (1976), Model (1980), Zoo (1993), Ballet (1995), Domestic Violence 1 & 2 (2001-2), At Berkley (2013), In Jackson Heights (2015), And many more!

Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter: Lonely Boy (1962)

Michael Wadleigh: Woodstock (1969)

Stan Brakhage: The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971)

Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin: Chronicle of a Summer (1960) – (Cinema Verite)

Wang Bing: West of the Tracks (2003), Feng Ming: A Chinese Memoire (2007), ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013)

Dennis O’Rourke: Cannibal Tours (1988)

Jean-Luc Godard: Sympathy for the Devil (1968)

Steve James: Hoop Dreams (1994), The Interrupters (2011)

Robert Fiore and George Butler: Pumping Iron (1977)

Ichikawa Kon: Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Robert Gardner: Dead Birds (1963)

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky: Brothers’ Keeper (1992)

Molly Dineen: The Lie of the Land (2007), The Lord’s Tale (2005), Geri (1999)

Sensory Ethnography: Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez: Manakamana (2014)

P. Sniadecki: Foreign Parts (2011), Demolition (2008), People’s Park (2012)

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *