Apr
23

Rob Nilsson at SYRFILM 09



NancyKeefe Rhodes 04/23/09More articles
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For a long time, he says he tried to avoid making movies. He painted, wrote poetry, took a year off from Harvard to hitch-hike and work on steamers, taught English in Nigeria for the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War, drove a cab in Boston, lived on an island off the Biafran coast, took photos and took up the banjo. He was forty when his first feature length film came out.

“Northern Lights” (1978), which Rob Nilsson made with John Hanson and completed over several years time after a two-week shoot on location in North Dakota, then won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best first film.

Speaking by phone recently from his Citizen Cinema office in Berkeley, California, Nilsson said, “The reason that I went into cinema – and I tried to avoid it, I think, as much because my grandfather was a filmmaker – but I took it on because you can do all those things in cinema. You can do language, you can do pictures, you can do composition, you can do music, and you’re really creating a political unit, a little society, when you get together to make a film.”

His grandfather’s past was there waiting when Nilsson was ready. Frithjof Holmboe had been North Dakota’s state photographer and made movies there as early as 1907, before moving west and finally settling in Mill Valley above San Francisco. Hanson, who worked with Nilsson through a 1970s era film collective in the Bay Area called Cine Manifest, also had family roots in North Dakota. Together with attorney John Stout, Nilsson and Hanson formed New Front Films in Minneapolis for the making of “Northern Lights.”

“Northern Lights” is one of four films by Nilsson that’s screening in a “special tribute retrospective” at the Syracuse International Film Festival. He’ll also speak on a festival-sponsored panel about politics and film, and Stout, who’s remained involved in Nilsson’s ventures over the years, will join him on that panel.

Originally conceived as a documentary about the Non-Partisan League’s efforts to politicize farmers and their brief success in the 1916 state elections, “Northern Lights” employs then-94-year-old Henry Martinson, a real life radical organizer, as narrator. “Northern Lights” became the fictionalized story of Ray (Robert Behling) and Inga (Susan Lynch), the bank’s foreclosures on each of their family’s farms, Ray’s friction with his brother over his political activities, and the stress of Ray and Inga’s relationship. The film uses the device of Ray’s diary, which Martinson “finds” and sets about transcribing, as the story’s framework.

Judy Irola, the Cine Manifest collective’s only woman, was the film’s cinematographer; her 2006 documentary about that collective, “Cine Manifest,” and where its members are now, contains footage of the North Dakota shoot as well as two shorts by Nilsson from those years.

Some writers have viewed Nilsson’s work as concerned with male protagonists and how they work out their father-son issues, but even this first feature film contains a rich, detailed portrayal of Inga’s perspective on waiting for Ray, how that echoes what she remembers from childhood of her mother’s experience and ways that she takes the lead in their relationship.

The festival also screens “Need” (2005) from the nine-film cycle “9 @ Night,” which occurs in and around San Francisco’s red-light Tenderloin District – despite detours to Reno, Oakland, the docks, the aquarium and some other Bay neighborhoods – roughly over the years 2000-2005. “9 @ Night” chronicles nearly 50 characters living precariously on society’s fringes and employs looping time frames and some recurring key scenes and people across films. “Need” is the cycle’s seventh film and centers on a quartet of women, all sex workers, and their relationships with one another. “9 @ Night” completed shooting in 2005 and was first shown as a complete film cycle over three days in November 2007 at Harvard Film Archives.

“Frank Dead Souls,” shot in South Africa in 2003 and premiered last October at Mill Valley Film Festival (all Nilsson’s films open at Mill Valley), is one of a number of international collaborations Nilsson has engaged in with film collective projects abroad. (Others include “Winter Oranges,” shot on Sagi Island near Hiroshima in 2000, and “Samt/Silence,” shot in Jordan, also in 2000, and out in 2004). “Frank Dead Souls” concerns the staff of a magazine that’s sent on a “retreat” by bus to the coast across from Gorey Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. International bankers callously decide their fate on another side of the globe as the staff alternately battles and tries to recoup, under the guidance of their savvy, supportive editor, a woman named Fadilla (Fadilla Lagadieu).

The fourth film screening here is the stunningly beautiful and haunting “Presque Isle,” which premiered in the fall if 2007. Here, Danny (Kieran McCartney, a Nilsson regular in the “9 @ Night” series) returns to Presque Isle, his family home in northern Wisconsin near the paper-mill town of Rhinelander – where Nilsson was born. Danny’s past is there waiting for him too. Central New Yorkers will feel a particular resonance since Presque Isle is located in Wisconsin’s Oneida County and includes Oneida Nation characters.

A pioneer of independent cinema

Over 30 years and perhaps as many films, Nilsson has pioneered some aspects of independent cinema. He has embraced digital technology because of its versatility, lightness and ease in location shooting where a large conventional crew and cameras would bog down production. His early film “Signal 7” (1986), which follows cabbies and aspiring actors Speed (Bill Ackeridge) and Marty (Dan Leegant) through their night shift with San Francisco’s DeSoto taxi company, was the first feature film shot on small format video and then blown up to 35 mm.

As early as “Signal 7,” Nilsson was articulating that cinema “could be made from the inside out instead of an external story hovering over it.” – that is, the film driven not by what he calls “excessive plot” but by the characters themselves.

Nilsson makes movies by a method he calls “direct action,” which involves extensive cast rehearsal and work-shopping of the characters’ back-stories, but not of the scenes to be filmed. (He says he “lost” a scene once – from the early “Heat and Sunlight” in 1987 – that never measured up in the actual filming to its workshop improv “and I decided that was an omen.”) Having initially based direct action largely on the improvisational films of John Cassavetes, Nilsson has refined and expanded his approach over the years. His casts, many of them non-professionals from his players workshops and others a core of long-time collaborators, develop their dialogue and story from an outline provided by Nilsson, and often a co-writer, instead of the conventional screenplay. In 2005 Koch-Lorber released several early Nilsson films on commercial DVD – they’re available at Netflix – that contain clips of such direct action workshops.

During our recent phone conversation, Nilsson talked again about what he means by saying that he’s “activating the players.”

“Well, I’m trying to get away from theater,” he said. “With the exception of certain avant-garde styles – theater is a way of coming up with something to do and then rehearsing it and rehearsing it, until it’s entirely a re-creation. I’m trying to have the whole thing be creation. So that nothing has to be repeated again and again so you lose the spontaneity. To me that’s what cinema does so much better. You can be right there in the moment. And you can do things one time. It’s the one time that interests me, the one time that this particular phrase is spoken. I want that first time and the only time that somebody says something. And is that it? No. Now I take it into what I call the alchemical lab and I start to edit it. I start to shape it and I start to polish it.”

Early on, Nilsson saw Cassavetes’ work as “not an anomaly, but a way.” And this is a fine time to revisit films like “Faces,” “Shadows,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” and “Opening Night.” Similarly Nilsson explains that “direct action is not an accident but a process,” comparing it to the “high-wire acts” of jazz greats like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins whose music he grew up on in the 60s.

“In jazz too it’s not that you just start playing,” he told me. “You have a motif and you start off with something, and then you slowly thread your way out into something that allows each person to have their own personal statement. What’s the guy’s name – Arturo Sandoval, the great Cuban trumpeter? Whenever you hear him play exact replicas of Dizzy Gillespie’s solos, it’s creepy! It’s just amazingly – wow, well, why? Why didn’t he take off from some spot where Dizzy left off? He’s such a wonderful technician, but it doesn’t matter if it’s just technically good. Does it have the feeling of the moment in the ensemble? That’s what I’ve always been thrilled with.”

On watching the films and “definiteness”

Nilsson’s films, particularly in the “9 @ Night” series, can begin to sound on paper like one of those sprawling Russian novels that start off with a chart so you can keep all the characters straight, except that curiously you don’t get lost. Instead, the on-screen recurrence of pivotal scenes, places and especially characters help us enter and navigate this world. While not concerning itself much with conventional exposition, Nilsson’s method provides surprisingly reliable bearings if you’re willing to bend your knees a bit, and an accumulating emotional resonance that leads to moments of great power. Direct action then leads to a somewhat different way of watching films too.

“It’s the resonances that you take into your life hat I think are the most fascinating,” Nilsson said from Berkeley. “If we can have things that will have reverie in them, then we’ll be a lot better off than having films that tell you, time and time again, what they’re about. And then you go home and you haven’t had the reverie, which extends out into your own life. That’s my argument with Hollywood and with most of what I see out there, is that they’re so concerned that you should know a thing. But who’s to say anyone can know a thing? You know, I look out and I see nothing but mystery and I’m amazed by it and frightened by it, daunted by it. Things like that feel more real to me than these certainties. I like the more animal – I like the notion of the hive more than anything else. But hives of humans – not only are they protecting their honey and building their honey and making poetry, but they’re making mad wars and terrible destructive devices, so it’s more complicated than the drones and the queens and the workers.”

A career of collaboration

Collaboration has been Nilsson’s mode since the beginning. In the early 70s he was part of the Filmmakers Union of San Francisco, where he worked on a short, “The Country Mouse, which led to his involvement in Cine Manifest from roughly 1972-78. Besides film workshop projects in Japan, Jordan, and South Africa, he’s gone to Kansas City (the result was “Opening,” in 2006) and to San Francisco’s red-light district, for the 14-year-long Tenderloin Action Group/Tenderloin yGroup (a project that produced first the billiards classic “Chalk” in 1996 and then the “9 @ Night” series). In 1998 he and a cluster of his regular crew worked on a Rod Serling script for TV, “A Town has Turned to Dust.” His collaboration with the San Francisco Digital Film School resulted in “Security” (2005) as well as “Presque Isle.” At his own Citizen Cinema in Berkeley he continues to offer workshops and his productions continue to apprentice new filmmakers. Films in the pipeline include “Imbued” with Stacy Keach – he’s sent that off to Cannes at this point – and another entitled “Woman Number One.”

Nilsson commented that this life-long mode may be a contradiction. Like the character he plays in his film “Heat and Light” (1987), the photojournalist Mel Hurley, who can “go all Norwegian on us,” he has seen himself as a loner.

“I do have a film that I could make entirely on my own,” he said. “I could play the role, I could do sound and the picture – and yet I don’t. There’s something about the discoveries about what people are capable of that’s really kind of hypnotic. In my workshops I almost invariably find that people surprise themselves, when the opening is made clear. Therefore I’m less impressed with – you know, the big bravura stars. Many of them have enormous talent. I don’t deny that, but a small gesture from a person who didn’t know they had that gesture anywhere in their lives is just as sweet, really. And so maybe that’s why I’m always in groups of people and yet I always feel it’s odd that I am.

Nilsson has had some long-time fellow-travelers. Besides John Stout, the actors Dan Leegant, Edwin Johnson, Johnny Tidwell, Kieran McCartney, to name a few, cinematographer Mickey Freeman, Steve and Hildy Burns, in recent years Chikara Motomura who has performed a range of work. One is the late David Schickele from the old Cine Manifest, often listed in Nilsson film credits simply as “Okunrin Meta,” a phrase from the Yoruba poetry tradition roughly meaning “valorous person.”

“Yeah, it means ‘the strength of three,’” said Nilsson. “I was looking over some old letters from David, and David was opposed to ‘Northern Lights.’ He thought it was a ridiculous idea. He was opposed to my last cut of ‘Heat and Sunlight.’ He was my best friend and he never held back. He told me exactly what came from his heart. And there were always people there willing to give it from the heart, but also to set me straight if they thought I should be set straight. We had some great battles. Cine Manifest was one great battle. Steve Burns and I are always battling. David and I battled. So maybe it’s better to put it in those terms. That these are true seekers in their own right and we found a path where we could do something with the battles that we had. Of course as you know the people that embrace the hardest are the ones that just got done tearing each other’s eyes out. The reconciliation of enemies is one of the deepest of all bonds. Some of us’ll fight and we won’t speak for four years. So let’s put it in terms of a loving battle. Because what’s more interesting is the squeeze in the middle of love.”


Politics, cinema and the artist’s message

Nilsson’s first public gig at the film festival is a panel discussion next Wednesday afternoon about politics and cinema. In releasing the DVD of “Winter Oranges,” a film set on Sagi Island across the water from Hiroshima in Japan, that concerns a group of tourists and their encounters with the islanders, Nilsson wrote on the liner, “Only when art is non-political can it be radical. Only when it transcends all political systems and stands for the human heart, the rights of the individual…and that highly charged, chaotic, largely misunderstood mystery we choose to call love, can it fulfill its cathartic responsibility.”

Like his 60’s-era jazz greats, Nilsson himself does some high wire acts on this score. The young couple in “Northern Lights” are profoundly involved in their community’s struggle to define what “citizen” means. His second feature, “On the Edge” (1985), about cross-country running, includes a long battle between a son and father about what comprises real work, with the disapproving father – a long-time activist – played by Bill Bailey, himself once black-listed by HUAC during the McCarthy years. “Heat and Sunlight” features a photojournalist who covered Biafra’s famine but is really about his own narcissism in relationship. Nilsson’s globe-hopping music documentary, “Words for the Dying” (1990; just out a few months ago on a new DVD), chronicles the recording of “The Falklands Suite” for John Cale’s 1989 album of the same title with Brian Eno, which set four Dylan Thomas poems to music as a commentary on the Falklands War – a remarkable, complex study of art’s making and its tasks and toll upon its practitioners.

More recently, Nilsson’s Jordanian film, “Samt/Silence,” concerns on its surface the battle over gender roles in that society. A brother, egged on by his fundamentalist friends, interferes with his younger sister’s weekend at a conference where both young men and women participate. But the story’s real pivot is the pain between brother and sister. Having angrily barged his way into the conference, Jihad (Jihad) listens in on his sister’s sorrowful complaint about what she fears losing along with her new-found freedom. Ashtar (Suha Naggar) says, “We were always more than brothers and sisters and I counted on him to protect me.”

A tiny smile crosses Jihad’s face and he finds a way through almost overwhelming discomfort to remain and participate, albeit resentfully. Many filmmakers would have weighted this story differently.

“Well, politics – generally speaking – it’s about choosing sides,” said Nilsson. “But I can’t choose any sides, because I represent everybody in a particular context. It’s as you say, when you see that little smile happen, you realize that you’re a part of it. You’re part of all of those people.”

Nilsson traveled extensively in Jordan, shooting footage in community centers across the country for a documentary.

“When I was in Jordan it was like being in northern Greece, or like being in West Africa,” he went on. “Salt of the earth, incredibly beautiful, alive, funny, empathetic people. Some people have the idea that a political way of describing women in Jordan would be as second-class citizens, downtrodden, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But the women that I met are amazingly full of life and absolutely – what would you say? – inventive. I saw women who looked like they came right out of the Bible. And they were in birth control classes. Now, how did they get there? I’m sure they had to manipulate the old man and the society quite a bit to get there. But they did. So – I’m for them, I’m for the old men sitting back there saying, ‘Goddamn it, why did I let her go?’ You know, I understand that too.”

For Nilsson this directly involves the artist’s message.

“Artists show the difficulty in that,” he went on. “And the empathy for all of those efforts. And I do have empathy for all those efforts. Artists try to say, ‘Look, it’s okay. See, this is how we are. And this is the pain and this is the joy. This is the 80 years you get. You know, take a look. Take a look.’ This is the message of the artist.”

Through working with the actor Stacy Keach on “Imbued,” Nilsson recently read “Letters from Alf,” about a troubled man who seeks clarity among fishermen on the Maine coast. The novel by Gladden Schrock, who teaches drama at a New England college, was short-listed for the Pulitzer in 1973.

“He’s just sent me his book,” said Nilsson, who plans to meet Schrock in New York City after Syracuse. “Talk about a word-smith! I don’t even know who to compare him to. But his voice is saying kind of better than I can say it, what I’m trying say about the animal in us, and about being able to be present in the world as a contradictory animal.”

Besides Cassavetes, Nilsson admires Bergman greatly. In the on-screen moments that pivot successfully on the human and the animal rather than on the political argument, his work echoes some of Bergman’s most haunting work, in which Bergman seems to have imposed on himself the discipline of artists from unfree societies who – constrained from portraying politics openly – had to make stories about human beings and in that way became truly subversive.

“I think that is subversive, yeah,” said Nilsson. “I think we’re in an era now where blame is so easy – and the right and the wrong is so easily bandied about. I think that’s been very harmful to this country. I’m trying to finish my book about film criticism so I can get it off the plate. I’m much more interested in finding out who the real souls are that are trying to make art out of tragedy.”

“Words for the Dying” and music in film

Welsh musician and former Velvet Underground member John Cale invited Nilsson to film the odyssey of recording of “The Falklands Suite,” not apprising collaborator Brian Eno of this fact until well into the journey. The running battle between Eno and Nilsson remains on-screen in the final film. Nilsson had already used music from Brian Eno’s 1981 album with David Byrne, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” in his own “Heat and Sunlight.”

“He was a hero for that music,” Nilsson said. “And then to be so dismissed the way that he did! Part of it was perfectly valid. I agree that self-consciousness is the death of art. And John didn’t tell him properly, but I think he did that because he knew that Brian would say no, and I was caught in the middle. And if Brian had dealt with me straight up, and just said, ‘Look,’ and explained it to me, I probably would’ve backed off. Or I might have – let’s put it that way. I think we were already in London. But he was such a snot!”

Nilsson laughed. “But there was just no way. We had to do battle and we did and, you know, I don’t hold any grudges. I hope he doesn’t.”

For all Nilsson’s love of jazz, a wide range of music appears in his films, from bagpipes to Les McCann to opera to Kit Walker’s score for “Presque Isle.”

“Usually the way it happens,” said Nilsson, “is at some point the music will appear. Steve Lacey in ‘Winter Oranges,’ that happened when we were leaving Sagi Island, going to Kyoto, driving on this traffic-clogged highway and Steve Lacey comes up. I think it was a CD – boom, there it was. The bagpipe music for ‘Northern Lights’ was just something that we heard. It seems completely unlikely that you’d use that music. The same thing with Brian Eno – I had been in Africa where Amos Tutuola had been and I had read his book ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.’ I don’t remember how, but just there it was. When people say, ‘Do you want to have a composer?’ No. I don’t want to have a composer. I want the music to come out of something. With Kit Walker, I was working with the San Francisco Digital Film School and Steve Kopels said, ‘I know a guy.’ So Kit just did this wonderful score. So in that way the artist appeared before the music. But ‘On the Edge’ is the only one that was scored in any kind of traditional way. Because I like to be able to place it, you know, where I want it to be? And I do anyway. I see it in another place and put it over there. I used to play five-stringed banjo pretty well. And me and Schickele, we had a little group called Teuton and the Scandihoovian. I did Scruggs-style picking and he played a guitar and we did regular Bluegrass harmonies. Having the kind of feel for music, it’s hard to accept a scored thing of any sort."

Finding Nilsson’s films

Of the four films the festival is screening, only “Need” is available for purchase at this point, as part of the boxed “9 @ Night” DVD set. Besides the several Kock-Lorber DVDs released in 2005, the new edition of “Words for the Dying” and an old VHS of “A Town Has turned to Dust” (1998) that is knocking around on-line, most Nilsson work that’s available comes directly through Citizen Cinema. Over the years distribution has often been difficult, whether theatrical release or later VHS and DVD availability. “Northern Lights” is particularly hard to find – last week the single VHS copy hovering on-line for re-sale – at $1,000 – no longer came up in search. Like Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” which also languished since the 70’s because of a music rights issue, “Northern Lights” may not be seen anytime soon except in venues like this festival.

“We have a rights issue struggle with ‘Northern Lights,’” said Nilsson. “I’m hoping it can be fixed up. There’s an organization that’s doing a new print for us. They’re going to restore it. And it’s something that should be in the Criterion Collection. Until we solve this rights issue – nobody’s gonna see it. The only rights that John and I possess still are US theatrical. And that’s probably the hardest place to show the film anyway.”

Nilsson went on, “Distributors and I have not agreed. I’ve done it myself a lot. Somebody like Cassavetes did it himself, and was quite successful at it. But you know – it is my job. I don’t say it isn’t my job. But I don’t do it that well. I guess really since digital started I’ve made so many films I can hardly breathe long enough to distribute them. And this is a big contradiction. It’s something I’ve got to address. If I could stop making films for five minutes I’d probably would spend the energy towards distribution.”

A last word

Nilsson hopes to finish his book soon about “the over-arching question, what cinema should – what it could do, what it could be, where it should come from. What niche does it fill?”

“I have almost total disappointment in American-style cinema,” he said. “I’m an admirer of those Mexican guys – Iñárritu, del Toro and Cuarón. I thought that ‘The Wrestler’ was worth seeing. I think Aronofsky’s a talent. I think Gus Van Sant is a talent. I guess what I wish would be, like poetry in the Soviet Union once was, where thousands of people would come listen to Yevtushenko. And because why? Because they loved language, and because they loved feeling and they loved the relationship of that to the land and to nature. And then it seems to me one of the last times that type of work was being done in this country was in the time of the Transcendentalists, Emerson and Whitman and people of that ilk. So this disconnect between what I consider to be real art, what Melville did, and our culture, is one thing. I think it’s time to start looking to the sun-burned souls, the people who really in some sense might be like the shaman to us if we were only able to put down the TV sets long enough.”

Rob Nilsson participates in the forum on “Politics and Film” on Wed., April 29 at 2:00 PM in Syracuse University’s Newhouse III, Hergenhan Audit., Waverly Ave. at South Crouse.
Rob Nilsson on hand for Q&A after these screenings:
“Northern Lights” – Wed., April 29, 7:00 PM, Eastwood Palace, 2384 James St.
“Need” – Fri., May 1, 5:15 PM, Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St. (at State)
“Frank Dead Souls” – Sat., May 2, Noon, Everson Museum
“Presque Isle” – Sat., May 2, 7:30 PM, Everson Museum

A shorter version of this article appeared on page 1 of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly's April 23, 2009, issue. Find the latest and most accurate scheduling of all Syracuse International Film Festival screenings and events at syrfilm.com, where you can also create and print your own customized festival schedule and purchase and print tickets at home. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle and writes the film column “Make it Snappy.” Her film reviews are archived at MovieCrossRhodes.blogspot.com. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

Thanks to composer Kit Walker for permission to use the clip below from the opening of "Presque Isle." See & hear more at kitwalker.com.





CATEGORY: Movies
TAGS: SYRFILM, Rob Nilsson, movies, Northern Lights, Cine Manifest, kit Walker, Citizen Cinema
EDITION: The Eagle


Rating: 3.5/5 (11 votes cast)



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