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November 17 - 19

9 @ Night: The Films of Rob Nilsson

Surviving on the Margin, An Essay by Ray Carney

For 30 years, San Francisco–based Rob Nilsson has been serving as the conscience and agent provocateur of low–budget American independent filmmaking. Beginning with the award–winning Northern Lights, Signal 7, and Heat and Sunlight in the 1970s and 1980s, he has devoted his cinematic career to presenting the sorts of sociological realities, interpersonal interactions, and emotional transactions that have been screened out of big–budget, mainstream American film.

The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to present the 9 @ Night series, Nilsson's most ambitious and controversial project to date, for the very first time in its entirety. Nilsson has created a master–narrative more than 14 hours in length, made up of nine interlocking yet independent fictional films focusing on the lives of the drifters, scam–artists, hustlers, sex–trade workers, and others who exist on the tattered fringes of American society and populate San Francisco’s poorest and most deprived neighborhood, the Tenderloin District. (Though the nine cinematic narratives mesh with each other, and contain numerous enriching cross–references, it is worth emphasizing that each film stands completely on its own, so that it is not necessary for a viewer to see the entire sequence to appreciate any one of them.) What makes the project even more daring is that Nilsson developed the stories in collaboration with actual inhabitants of the Tenderloin District, and cast the same individuals in many of the roles, which means that the actors on screen are often playing parts scarily close to the ones they play in real life, as they struggle and compete for survival at the muddy bottom of the food chain.

In line with much of Nilsson’s other work, the 9 @ Night films are not organized around action–centered, Hollywood forms of presentation, but are character studies that chiefly focus on the troubled and troubling emotional lives of men – though all of the films include important female roles, and one of them, Need, devotes itself explicitly to exploring the emotional lives of a group of women. The narratives jump freely back and forth through the space and time of the main characters’ lives as if to demonstrate that what we are is more important than what we do.

One of the questions Nilsson explores is how individuals hold themselves together when every external form of support is taken away. What is left of life when the material rewards of capitalism, the hierarchical relationships of bureaucracy, and all dreams of personal advancement or improvement are withdrawn? “Family and friends” is the usual answer to that question, but the characters in these films don’t even have the safety net of brothers, sisters, children, parents, or close friends to break their fall. Their stints in prison or on the road have estranged them from their own pasts.

The pastoral myth would have it that to be liberated so radically is to become free; but Nilsson’s vision is darker than that. He demonstrates that the rivalries, depredations, and insensitivities of our interactions with others are not imposed on us by persons or systems external to ourselves, but are something we ourselves create – and that these outsiders re–create even as outcasts. His characters’ vulnerabilities and fears reconstitute and repeat the brutalities and cruelties of mainstream society. Pan demonstrates that even the surrogate families the homeless create among themselves repeat the dysfunctionality of the relationships in many biological families. The films are anthologies of inadvertent miscommunication, misunderstanding, and failure to connect with others even when connection is the thing most needed and desired.

Notwithstanding the nitty–gritty “realism” of the street–world Nilsson has chosen as the milieu for his series, it is critical to recognize that his real subject is not externals but internals – not characters’ physical, but their emotional states of loss and deprivation. As Pan (Kieron McCartney)puts it, as bad as “the outside pain” can be for someone living on the streets, “the inside pain … the suffering inside the body” is worse – and far more important. To bring that inner reality into view and communicate the powerful emotional and psychological forces roiling under the shabby surfaces of his characters’ lives, Nilsson employs a striking series of Bressonian poetic images, sounds, and juxtapositions. In Noise, Ben Malafide, played by Robert Viharo, (his last name is clearly metaphoric) has his story warped and transformed almost beyond recognition at moments by computerized forms of image–processing that figure cultural forces that threaten understandings of life (or solutions to his problems) couched in merely personal terms. In Attitude, the Tamburlaine character Spoddy (Michael Disend) is linked to the openness and expansiveness of the sky, birds, and the sea at the beginning of his film, and his subsequent fall is rendered as a descent into turbid, dark realms of mud, bushes, and enclosed spaces. In Scheme C6 (to my mind, the masterwork of the series), Bid’s (Cory Duval) urban–commando image of himself is rendered in a series of visually assaultive, convention–violating forward and upward movements and harshly grating, mechanical sounds, and his state of emotional unavailability is visually associated with locks, chains, doors, interiors, and dead–ends. In Stroke and Pan, the brutalizing on–rush of trains and traffic, and in several of the other films, the scale of the cityscapes in the background or looming over the characters seem to flatten them into insignificance under the pressure of American corporate power and wealth.

The meta–narrative of the entire 9 @ Night series might be said to be the downward spiral of pain and loss that characters who have dropped beneath the bottom edge of the American cultural support system inflict on themselves – even more than on others. The path the characters in these films travel is almost always downward to darkness – or, in the case of Phil (Teddy Weiler) and Johnny (Edwin Johnson) in the final moments of Stroke, to something worse than darkness – to a complete erasure of their identities, as if they had never been born or lived at all. But the wonder of Nilsson’s vision of life is that he shows us that even on the road to hell, moments of soul–saving grace can be offered to us. A blonde “angel” makes a brief appearance near the end of Noise. Viewers are themselves surprised by joy and gifted with grace when the reason for the screams coming from a nearby car are suddenly revealed in Singing. In that same film, a shared song in a bar, or, in Pan, a goofy musical pantomime can momentarily close the gap of fear and suspicion that otherwise separates people. In Stroke (a punning title), the touch of a woman’s hand, the kindness of a friend, or the sound of a voice can give even the hopeless fleeting hope. Several of the films show how something as small as a handclasp or a look can offer the possibility of transforming all of life. Nilsson knows that miracles are constantly happening all around us, and that ministering spirits can offer salvation even as we travel down the path to perdition; but he also mourns that so few are able to receive the proffered gift.

Buy a $60 9 film pass and join Rob Nilsson's Screening Club. Meet with Rob and members of the cast on Monday night after all nine films have screened to discuss the series as a whole. The Screening Club is for everyone interested in delving deeper into the 9 @ Night series and providing feedback to Rob and the cast. Questions about individual films can be asked in the Q&A following each film.

Attendees and enthusiasts may be interested in Rob's website, open to user collaberation and feedback. Here is the link:
http://citizencinema.net

The introduction to the
9 @ Night series was written by Ray Carney, professor of film and American studies at Boston University, who will also introduce individual films in the series. He is the author of more than ten books on film and other art, and manages a web site devoted to independent film at: www.Cassavetes.com. Special thanks to Ray Carney. Special support provided by the Academy Foundation of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Saturday November 17 at 5 pm

Noise

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2002, video, b/w, 80 min.
With Robert Viharo, Paige Olson, Edwin Johnson

In the first of Nilsson's 9 @ Night series, Ben Malafide gets out of prison after 20 years and arrives in San Francisco by ferryboat.  The Information Age assails him like a hive of angry bees.  Noises, images, illusory hopes and unkept promises.  Time itself seems to run forward and backward as Ben looks for the basics… a meal, a kind word, a bed for the night.  Information does not equal knowledge and being hooked up does not insure communication.  Street raw meets digital glitz and Ben is transported… and then thwarted.  But in the midst of chaos a mysterious angel presents Ben with an unlikely source of clarity, an unequivocal gesture in a kaleidoscopic world. 

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Saturday November 17 at 7:30 pm

Used

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2007, video, b/w, 84 min.
With Robert Viharo, Paige Olson, Edwin Johnson

9@Night resident antihero Malafide (Viharo), departs his part-time
lover Tracey's restful digs for the streets. After a mental breakdown, he develops a strong bond with a homeless man as they embark on a journey to bring a “mystical man,” named People, “to his spiritual place.” Used distinguishes itself among the 9@Night films with its stark landscape photography, in which the desolate beauty of the Nevada desert mirrors the characters' own (Mill Valley Film Fetival Program Notes).

 

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Saturday November 17 at 9:15 pm

Attitude

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2003, video, b/w, 101 min.
With Michael Disend, Robert Viharo, Edwin Johnson

Spoddy is a garage mechanic who knows everything about cars but hates them. He is brilliant, arrogant, and has pecuiliar scorn for people on society's edges... Then he is diagnosed with AIDS. The bottom is about to fall out of his life.

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Sunday November 18 at 3 pm

Singing

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2000, video, b/w, 85 min.
With Jim Carpenter, Barbara Jaspersen, Domenique Lozano

 

Perry Truman, an accountant from the suburbs, rejects a tryst
offered by his live-in girlfriend of 20 years. Wandering the Tenderloin that night he is drawn into a series of dangerous and erotic street encounters. Everyone sings in Singing, except the real singer.

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Sunday November 18 at 7 pm

Stroke

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2000, video, b/w, 97 min.
With Edwin Johnson, Teddy Weiler, Omewene

"Nilsson still swims against all commercial tides... this punishingly real look at the homeless and hopeless merits attention... Stroke is a riveting drama about individuals clinging to life's bottom rungs." - Variety

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Sunday November 18 at 9 pm

Scheme C6

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2001, video, color & b/w, 97 min.
With Cory Duval, Monica Cortes Viharo, David Fine

A scheme is a dream with street smarts... but doomed to fail. Bid's father is a cop but Bid lives beyond the law. He invites rebellion but discovers loneliness.

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Monday November 19 at 6 pm

Need

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2005, video, b/w, 97 min.
With Diane Gaidry, Marianne Heath, Gabriel Maltz Larkin

In a profession which thrives on fantasy and martyrdom, four women struggle to hold onto their reasons for caring for each other.

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Monday November 19 at 8 pm

Pan

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2006, video, b/w, 98 min.
With Kieron McCartney, Nighttrain Schickele, Kara McCartney

"Pan makes heartrending visual poetry out of the iconic images of trains and railroad tracks... cast and crew place themselves directly in the middle of the action, launching real-life, off the cuff adventures in dark alleys." - David Templeton, The Bohemian

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Join Rob Nilsson's screening club: 9 film pass available
Monday November 19 at 10 pm

Go Together

Directed by Rob Nilsson, Appearing in Person
US 2007, video, b/w, 94 min.
With Denny Dey, Michelle Allen, Robert Viharo

Malafide (Viharo), undergoes an identity-swap, and so does his counterfeit cash. Seeking respite from the streets, Malafide watches scenes from his own life (clips from earlier 9 @ Night films) unspool as psychic-cinematic projections on the screen of Oakland's historic Parkway Theater. Meanwhile, the challenge of a life in the film industry is explored through the strained sexual relationship of theater-owners Denny and Michelle, who struggle to keep the Parkway out of the hands of the pornographers and swindlers. In Go Together Nilsson conjures a remarkably haunting, expressionist homage to cinema. (Adapted from Mill Valley Film Fetival Program Notes)

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