Rob Nilsson, the featured filmmaker at this year's annual Memphis Digital Arts Cooperative film festival, might be the most accomplished and ground-breaking American director of whom most film buffs have never heard.
For starters, the Berkeley-based Nilsson is a protÇgÇ of indie icon John Cassavetes, the late director whose '60s and '70s classics such as Shadows, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence are widely considered at once the origin and apex of the American independent film movement. (Cassavetes' widow and on-screen muse, Gena Rowlands, has been one of Nilsson's key supporters.) Nilsson was the first director to take home hardware at both the Cannes (where his debut, Northern Lights, won the Camera d'Or for best first film in 1979) and Sundance film festivals (where 1988's Heat & Sunlight won the grand prize). Nilsson is also a key pioneer in the rise of video filmmaking, his 1985 film Signal 7 the first feature shot on video and transferred to film for distribution. Nilsson predated the celebrated Dogme movement by several years with his own similar, organic, and independent film style championed in a manifesto labeled "Direct Action Cinema."
Nilsson's Direct Action Cinema prescribes a jazz-like film style that emphasizes the importance of acting and editing and downplays the centrality of the director and writer. Nilsson's method centers on creating situations and developing characters and allowing those two elements to collide with as much freedom as possible. His manifesto never mentions the use of video, which he has used exclusively for more than a decade, but in a recent phone interview Nilsson makes it clear that the technology has become crucial to his method.
"It's probably a clichÇ by now," Nilsson says about shooting on video, "but we've been able to reverse the ratio between the time it takes to set up and light a scene and the time you have to actually shoot. Traditionally, you'll spend three to four times as much time on setup and preparation of a shot as your actual shooting time."
With more time to let the camera roll, the compactness and mobility of handheld video fit into Nilsson's mission to create spontaneous, street-level cinema. "This way," Nilsson says, "you can go out into the world. You don't announce yourself as a film crew, and most people won't even notice you. My style is to go and be part of the world and to be interested in it and in the way that it interacts with the known elements of our story. That gives us opportunities that we can hardly imagine. If you're cordoning off an entire block in order to recreate something that you wrote on paper, that's just business as usual. There's no poetry in it, no risk."
Nilsson's current project is a nine-film series called "9@Night," filmed entirely with amateur actors (many of them area homeless or formerly homeless) from a Nilsson-founded San Francisco acting workshop called the Tenderloin Group. The "9@Night" series is a cycle of street-level dramatic features that focuses on the lives of about 50 inner-city characters (with major characters in one film popping up as minor characters in the others). The series' first three features Singing, Stroke, and Scheme C6 were all screened at last year's inaugural MeDiA Co-op festival. This year, the series' fifth film, the recently completed Attitude, will be the opening-night screening, preceded by a free workshop with Nilsson, titled "Your Life Won't Lie," on the rise of digital cinema, followed the next day by an all-day Direct Action Cinema workshop (registration required).
Attitude is similar in quality and tone to the other "9@Night" films that screened here last year. The film centers on an auto mechanic and petty criminal named Spoddy, a belligerent, almost Nietzschean, figure who heaps abuse on everyone around him, especially homeless panhandlers who approach him on the street. But Spoddy gets an unwelcome comeuppance of sorts when he learns he's HIV-positive, a personal crisis made worse after a painful visit to his girlfriend results in his having to go on the lam to flee from her violent brothers. Spoddy ends up hiding in a squatters' community at a landfill adjacent to San Franciso Bay and finds himself dependent on the people he most despises. Nilsson uses the project to pursue his notion of drama through Method-like acting and to show how an otherwise familiar thriller story arc can make room for acknowledgement of such common but little-seen-on-the-big-screen issues like AIDS and homelessness.
Unsurprisingly, Nilsson doesn't see much to his liking in mainstream American movies these days but is good-humored about his alienation from Hollywood product, saying that he doesn't mean to be so "stone-faced and Norwegian" about the present film climate.
"Now it seems like music is king," Nilsson says. "No one seems to be able to pick up a camera and capture the tenor of the times. We have a colonized music business that creates taste, but at the same time you have these great garage bands and a teeming underground of young musicians [in every city]. The film scene is obviously colonized by Hollywood and by television, but the mainstream in that world seems to hold more sway [over the tastes of local artists] than in music. I don't entirely understand this, but I think a lot of it has to do with the costs of making a movie relative to the cost of putting out a CD. But, with the costs coming down, I suspect there should be more movements such as what the [MeDiA Co-op] guys down there in Memphis are doing. I'm eternally hopeful that [someday] there's going to be a Cassavetes in every state."
at MeDiA Co-op's Digital Film Festival
"Your Life Won't Lie" workshop (free): 6:30 p.m.
Attitude screening: 8:30 p.m.
Wednesday, September 3rd
Direct Action Cinema workshop
10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Thursday, September 4th
All Nilsson events at 1st Congo Theater,
First Congregational Church