Monday, April 13, 2009

Film Review #192: Need
Director: Rob Nilsson
Cast: Diane Gaidry, Marianne Heath, Gabrielle Maltz Larkin, Brette McCabe, Cory Duval, David Fine

Of the four films by Rob Nilsson that the Syracuse International Film Festival (SIFF) screens this year, only Need comes from his 9 @ Night series, a film cycle of nine movies. Mostly 9 @ Night takes place in and around San Francisco’s red-light Tenderloin District – despite detours to Reno, Oakland, the docks, the aquarium and some other Bay neighborhoods – and roughly over the years 2000-2005. Overall, the cycle chronicles almost 50 characters living precariously on society’s fringe – hookers, homeless, forgers, pimps, vice cops, scammers of all sorts and a few tourists – with looping time and some recurring key scenes and people across films. The aging poet and stroke victim Phil Berkowitz (Teddy Weiler), for example, appears in six of the 9 @ Night films, returning as a ghost in Need after drowning in an earlier installment, and even briefly barges into an entirely separate film, Nilsson’s UC Berkeley campus tale, Security (also 2005). Another, the mysterious and threatening Schumacher (Ron Perlman), though mentioned often in tones of warning, actually appears just once.

In the fall of 2007, Nilsson called 9 @ Night done. Shot in somewhat different order than the completed line-up, it’s been screened a number of times now in entirety, usually three films a day over three days. If seeing Need prompts you to seek out the rest, available in a boxed DVD set from Nilsson’s Citizen Cinema in Berkeley, good.

Need is the cycle’s seventh film and centers on a quartet of women, all sex workers. Three – stripper Jane (Marianne Heath), her mother the prostitute Lou (Brette McCabe), and manager/phone sex worker Francesca (Gabrielle Maltz Larkin) – appear a number of times throughout the cycle; street-walker Petite (Diane Gaidry), who plies the aquarium’s shark tank walk-way for dates and seems unlikely to live long, only here. While some see Nilsson’s work as largely concerned with male protagonists and how they work out their father issues, that view misses much of his attention to women. A raw and gritty film, much of Need focuses the difficult relationships these women have with each other as well as the pursuit of Petite by the creepy Salowitz (David Fine, who at some disorienting moments seems to channel Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort). Need also contains two scenes likely to stay with you a long time afterward for their sheer dignity and tenderness.

One I call Lou’s “Roethke moment.” Addicted to heroin, not getting many dates these days through Francesca’s escort service, and increasingly reckless, Lou takes her business back to the street and alleys. Chased and beaten by two pimps for working their territory, shooting up and crashing in fearsome spots, in the end wandering dazed, Lou has a moment that seems to promise redemption. A silver-haired college professor looks her up after “that night in Long Beach” and invites Lou to join him while, at long last, he writes his book. It’s one of Nilsson’s bitterest comments anywhere – and he’s an old English major from Harvard himself – on a certain form of predatory intellectualism. First, the professor tries softening Lou up with a poem he says she’s inspired him to write. Mightily startled when Lou points out that he’s quoting Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman,” the professor soldiers on, suggesting that “Stanley and Blanche could’ve worked out” and that she’ll have to “pull her weight” in their new domestic arrangement. He means he expects her to keep whoring. After a long and level, wordless gaze, Lou stands and walks away.

Another scene is a variation on one Nilsson inserts as a grace note near the end of several films, in which a couple lie embracing in bed. Here, one story thread concerns how Jane and the wheelchair-bound Bid Qualquiver (Cory Duval) circle one another. Bid appears in four 9 @ Night films, most elaborately in the sixth. Scheme C6 details the physically charismatic Bid’s fierce rebellion against his vice cop father Qually (Bruce Marovich), living on the street with his motorcycle, and the pivotal showdown – recurring several times through the cycle from different perspectives – that cripples him. For all her 9 @ Night appearances, Jane smiles only once as she does at Bid in Need. Having angrily insisted “I can’t” when he thinks Jane wants sex, Bid returns after he’s mugged. What we see afterward is the early morning sky lightening above them as they still sleep through the window that frames the Bay Bridge.

On paper, the 9 @ Night films begin to sound like one of those Russian novels that start off with a chart so you can keep all the characters straight, except that you don’t get lost. Instead, the on-screen recurrence of pivotal scenes, places and characters helps us enter and navigate this world. While not conventional exposition, it still serves to provide bearings. The NYU-based Macedonian filmmaker Milcho Manchevski – who has a similar interest in fracturing narrative time and whose latest feature, Shadows, screens at SIFF this year too – has achieved something similar in his growing body of work by returning repeatedly to some shooting locations and using many of the same actors.

The billiards film Chalk (1996) and then the 9 @ Night films were produced over 14 years time from Nilsson’s weekly acting workshop in San Francisco’s inner-city Tenderloin district, first called the Tenderloin Action Group and then, after moving to the district’s YMCA, the Tenderloin yGroup. Since Nilsson will be present for Q & A after festival screenings plus participate in the politics-and-film panel, plenty of discussion will occur during his time in Syracuse about his eager adoption of digital filmmaking, his reliance on editing to “discover” his films, and his “direct action” method of filmmaking, in which often non-professional players extensively workshop their characters’ back-stories but don’t rehearse the scenes that are actually filmed.

This review was written for SIFF's website,, which lists this year's festival program and events. In addition to Need, which screens on Friday, 5/1 at 5:15 PM at the Everson Museum on Harrison St., SIFF screens Nilsson's first feature film, Northern Lights (1979), on Wednesday, 4/29 at 7:00 PM at the Eastwood Palace Theater on James St. Also on Saturday, 5/2, both at the Everson Museum, last year's Frank Dead Souls at 12 noon & Presque Isle at 7:30 PM. Nilsson participates on SIFF's Politics & Film panel on Wednesday, 4/29 at 2:00 PM in Syracuse University's Newhouse 3 on Waverly Avenue in Herg Auditorium. Watch for my interview with Rob Nilsson in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 4/23, on-line at