For two decades now, East Bay director Rob Nilsson has been making a particular, and particularly idiosyncratic, type of ghost story. He doesn't traffic in the supernatural -- to the contrary, his films are constructed from the brick and mortar of neo-realism -- but he fills the screen with invisible characters: the grifters, hookers, homeless and hapless we usually make a point of not seeing, in real life as well as in the movies
Nilsson has spent the past dozen years working with the Tenderloin yGroup (as he dubbed it), a company of gutsy hard cases with checkered pasts who take acting far beyond therapy or entertainment. Perpetually inspired by his late idol John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence), Nilsson pushes himself and his nonprofessional actors to expose the raw emotional truths of lives focused first and foremost on survival. Shooting with low-cost digital video in high-contrast black-and-white, the director and the troupe have churned out one minimalist feature after another, most of them premiering at the high-toned Mill Valley Film Festival.
The 9 @ Night cycle is finally getting a theatrical release at the Roxie Theater. Seeing all nine films together, and being immersed in a world that's seemingly familiar yet is hidden and disorienting beneath the surface, is addictive. Furthermore, characters like the aging streetwalker Lou (Brett McCabe), one of four tough yet vulnerable women whose destinies propel Need, and who reappears fleetingly in Stroke and the finale, Go Together, crisscross throughout the series.
A central element of this body of work is that Nilsson and his cast invented the characters, devised their back stories and improvised each film. Because the actors have vivid faces and definite histories -- some look like they've led hard lives; others give off the vibe of people who made a regrettably poor choice or two (with drink or drugs, probably) and took a header from the middle class into the gutter -- they play their roles with a powerful, lived-in gravitas. The improvised storylines, however, are less compelling.
While the filmmakers and cast know intimately where the characters come from, they're often unsure where they're going. Developing a narrative on the fly is tricky stuff, and some of the films (like Need) succeed better than others. In Stroke, Johnny (Edwin Johnson) takes in a friend (Teddy Weiler) after Phil suffers a stroke and loses his ability to talk. The story takes its own sweet time covering a rather limited patch of ground, unless you consider the hike from the Tenderloin to Pier 31 a journey of epic proportions.
I appreciate Nilsson and company's implicit assertion that conventional narrative filmmaking is false and manipulative, and that strong characters should be sufficient to command our attention. I likewise applaud the filmmakers' rebuke of the airbrushed, spit-polished, art-directed-to-death nonsense that Hollywood dishes up week after week after week. At the same time, I wish there were more laughs strewn through the series; even desperate people in desperate circumstances retain a gallows sense of humor, strained through a filter of bitterness.
The scope of its ambition, and its commitment to depicting the unglamorous lives of ordinary people, entitles 9 @ Night to be mentioned alongside The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieslowski's brilliantly conceived and executed series loosely inspired by the 10 Commandments. Nilsson's Tenderloin characters have their own street-hardened morality, as you'd expect, but it leans surprisingly close to the golden rules that guide supposedly upstanding citizens.
If movies had the power to change our society, the 9 @ Night series would stand as the most important films of the year. But they don't anymore, and so the apparitions of
Rob Nilsson's 9 @ Night screens August 29-September 4, 2008 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco, Sept. 4 at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater in El Cerrito, Sept. 5-11, 2008 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and Sept. 7 at the Parkway Speakeasy Theater in Oakland. For more information, visit citizencinema.net.