Rob Nilsson and Cine Manifest
Anthology Film Archives retrospective highlights still-working filmmaker
Re-posted from www.thefanzine.com, 1/22/2010
In releasing the DVD of his Winter Oranges in 2000, a film set on Sagi Island just off the coast of Hiroshima and concerning encounters between the islanders and a group of tourists, filmmaker Rob 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, the reality of human contradiction…and that highly charged, chaotic, largely misunderstood mystery we choose to call love, can it fulfill its cathartic responsibility.”
This might seem an odd introduction to the early work of indie filmmaker Rob Nilsson, three of whose films are part of a Cine Manifest retrospective this month at Anthology Film Archives. Nilsson was an original member of Cine Manifest, San Francisco’s 1970s Marxist film collective. He is still making films at quite a brisk pace, working collaboratively and wrestling with the place of politics in art. Winter Oranges came about from an invitation to Nilsson from Sagi Poiesis II, a filmmaking workshop that brought him together with young Japanese actors and artists to create a film by what Nilsson calls “direct action cinema.”
“Direct action” owes as much to John Cassavetes’ cast improvisations, the 60s-era hire-wire jazz of Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, the production mobility and expanded editing made possible by digital filmmaking and to cinema vérité as it does to Marx. And it owes directors like Bergman, to whom reviewers compared Nilsson’s first feature visually for its bleak winter landscapes. More important for Nilsson, Bergman imposed upon himself the discipline of filmmakers from unfree societies who, constrained from portraying politics openly, have made compelling and perhaps their most deeply subversive stories about human beings. As early as Signal 7 (begun in 1983), despite subplots about a union vote and a union-themed stage play, Nilsson was articulating his aversion to “excessive plot” and his desire for “film [that] could be made from the inside instead of external story hovering over it.”
Winter Oranges is also clearly a direct descendant of Cine Manifest, a group comprising Eugene Corr, Peter Gessner, John Hanson, Judy Irola, Stephen Lighthill, Nilsson, and Steve Wax – and most enduringly for Nilsson, composer/filmmaker David Schickele, who didn’t actually join the collective but worked on many of their films. Except for Gessner, who left the group before its dissolution and became a private investigator, all the original members still work in some aspect of cinema – in film studies, PBS and network television, as filmmakers on both coasts and in the Wisconsin heartland.
The Anthology Film Archives (AFA) retrospective of Cine Manifest runs January 21 through the 28th. Of the nine films included – each screens twice – the centerpiece screenings are the collective’s own two major features (Over-Under, Sideways-Down, 1977, and Northern Lights, which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1979 for best first feature) and a sampling of their shorter documentary work (Western Coal, 1973, and Prairie Trilogy, 1978-80). The AFA program brackets these selections with five more films that elaborate how the collective came to be and shed light on how they functioned and the subsequent directions some of them took.
Jerry Stoll’s 1967 film Sons and Daughters (which Lighthill worked on) documents the Bay area’s anti-Vietnam War movement and influenced the collective’s formation. Irola, who now heads cinematography at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, developed her 2006 “true story” documentary, Cine Manifest, from a reunion held in 2002 for the purpose of reflecting on the personal and professional consequences of the collective and, the following year, the 25th anniversary celebration of Northern Lights. (The screening schedule is mum on whether AFA will also show the four Cine Manifest “birthday movie” shorts included as extras on the DVD of Irola’s film, but it looks like there would be time.) There are also three post-Cine Manifest films: Nilsson’s tale of two aspiring actors moonlighting as cabbies, Signal 7 (1986), Hanson’s portrait of a woman mine-worker’s conflicts between job and relationship in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range strip-mines, Wildrose (1985), and the Oscar-nominated film Corr partnered on about the McCarthy-era blacklist, Waldo Salt: A Screenwriter’s Journey (1990).
Cine Manifest’s original nucleus came together around the formation of an independent trade union. They wanted to live and make films collectively; their pooled and distributed salaries from other jobs – Lighthill worked for CBS and provided about half – supported about a dozen people and allowed them to do their own projects. Their subjects were those left out of mainstream narratives – for example, farmers, factory workers, women – and they understood all cinema as occurring in some political context. But, although they did immerse themselves in Chinese commune-style self-criticism that eventually led to ruptures, they were not to occupy themselves as filmmakers with simple agit prop. As Hanson later recalled, “We spent the entire time trying to figure out what ‘political’ meant.”
To Steve Wax, it meant, “Our films should have a message – and an audience too. People inspire people. Facts don’t.”
As part of a “self-history” of the collective in the media journal Jump Cut (1974, no. 3), Corr and Gessner wrote that attempts like Godard’s were “elitist,” adding, “We won’t concede popular films to Hollywood.”
Speaking in Irola’s 2006 documentary, Nilsson said, “We were pretentious as hell. I read things I wrote and I blanch, but I forgive us because we were all really trying.”
Besides hiring local actors, the collective conducted open casting calls and actors’ workshops for non-professionals, a practice Nilsson kept and has developed extensively since then. The casting for the collective’s first completed feature, Over-Under, Sideways-Down, turned up Johnny Tidwell, who had never acted or gotten beyond the ninth grade. Tidwell – and that film’s male lead, Robert Viharo – continued to work with Nilsson right up to and through the 9@Night films (though Tidwell died before the cycle was completed). Gene Corr told Irola, “We found middle-class people had developed a persona they wanted to protect. Working class people were willing to gamble it all.”
Northern Lights. Begun in 1975 with a two-week shoot in North Dakota, this feature took three years of additional interior shooting and editing back in California to finish and went on to win at Cannes for best first feature. A North Dakota native, John Hanson had originally invited Nilsson to join him in making a 20-minute documentary about the formation of the Nonpartisan League and its victory in the 1916 state elections. Both had roots in the state; Hanson’s father was a farmer and Nilsson’s grandfather had been state photographer and shot the first movie footage there in 1907 before moving the family west to Marin County above San Francisco.
An outgrowth of Socialist organizing and repulsion at the stranglehold on farmers by the Eastern-owned banks, railroads and grain elevators in a time of mass foreclosures and plunging prices for winter wheat, the Nonpartisan League enrolled some 10,000 farmers to sweep the state Republican primary in the spring and the governorship that fall in the general election. The League remained in power for six years in North Dakota, passing social safety-net legislation friendly to working people, creating state-owned banks and grain elevators, giving women the vote, and organizing in thirteen other states.
Hanson and Nilsson would indeed make a documentary on this topic later, but the Northern Lights project rather quickly became what Nilsson called a “hybrid” instead. With Nilsson and Hanson dividing the writing, directing and producing, Hanson focused on working with Irola, who was cinematographer, and Nilsson worked with the cast, largely North Dakota residents except for the Bay-area leads and Bill Ackeridge, who showed up in a number of their films and has one of the leads in Signal 7. The locale was the tiny real town of Crosby and the story centered on farmer-organizer Ray Sorenson (Robert Behling) and his fiancée Inga (Susan Lynch), as they plan to marry, watch their Norwegian families suffer loss and lose their farms, take part in the League’s efforts and try to sustain a relationship.
To structure the narrative like a set of nested boxes, the filmmakers enlisted 94-year-old Henry Martinson – himself a homesteader who lost his farm and joined the League’s efforts – to “discover” Ray’s diary and some old photos, and decide it would “make a good yarn about a time when we had the powers-that-be on the run.” So Henry pounds on an old upright typewriter and soon Ray’s voice takes over, beginning with a diary entry in the spring of 1915 about his plans to “get an answer out of Inga,” fading to a quietly lyrical scene among a stand of birch trees by a pond in which she agrees to marry him. As Inga had stalled on answering him, Ray starts out with little sympathy for the League – he remarks he never met an organizer with a sense of humor – whose local agents are trying to recruit him as the story unfolds.
Through a series of diary entries that fade to flash-backs, hard times and wrenching losses – Ray finds his deeply depressed father in a field, frozen to death and still holding his bottle, sees his mother return to Ohio and Inga’s family turned off their land by a plump banker in a fur coat, suffers a break with his brother John (Joe Spano) – convince Ray. He goes on the road for the League to convince equally skeptical others. There’s a text scroll at the end that sums up the League’s history, and Martinson returns, treating us to a tune on his cello, some calisthenics and ruminations about history eventually vindicating the League’s efforts.
“One of these days, they’ll go too far,” predicts Henry of the powers-that-be. “And – well, you know what I’m talking about. I’m an optimist. I can wait.”
Repeated watching doesn’t dim what Cannes judges cited as Irola’s “dazzling” cinematography – fluid, spare yet elegant, keenly and gracefully attuned to the depth with which movement endows image, evocative of the bigness of the land and sky that homesteaders labored within, and to the sheer physicality of their lives. Sometimes shot from barely above ground level – though this magnifies the horizon, Ray’s Uncle Thor also has an oft-repeated joke about hearing the grass grow – and shot through with light piercing vast darkness, here is a film about reaching for and illuminating particular lives long past in a shared place. Just as Henry tramps through woods and drives across the land, so do Ray and Inga. Nilsson was already forty when he made this film, and there’s remarkably little naïve romanticism or arrogance about the power of theory here. When it comes to organizing, Ray doesn’t want to; he and Inga grapple with her real and persistent fears that these efforts and separations will come to nothing and leave them both with no less lonely a life than she watched her mother endure. The power in Ray’s organizing really is rooted in relationship, in group conversations that one senses had to convince this cast as well as the audience – and the occasional “wrassling” match as a means of persuasion.
The AFA retrospective offers Northern Lights in a newly restored 35 mm print.
Prairie Trilogy. This retrospective provides a chance to see films that are now quite rare. Over-Under, Sideways-Down, which examines the travails of a worker who yearns for a break in baseball to escape a water-heater factory with racial tensions, still plays fresh and strong; you come away hoping it could find its way to a DVD incarnation. Likewise, it seems that Waldo Salt should rightfully join the cluster of more recent film projects about artists like Dalton Trumbo and Gertrude Berg who suffered under the blacklists.
But the most striking resurrection may be that of Prairie Trilogy, the three linked short docs of which Hanson and Nilsson make Henry Martinson the star.
Prairie Fire (1978, 30 minutes) is Martinson’s telling of the history of the Nonpartisan League, and includes archival footage by Nilsson’s grandfather, Frithjof Holmboe. Martinson recalls his own homesteading some miles outside Crosby, North Dakota – he’d left Sacred Heart, Minnesota, staked by his dad with $65 – and there’s an expanded narration about the national context in those years leading up to World War I and beyond, including the increasingly checkered career of League co-founder A. C. Townley, the recall campaigns of 1921, the sometimes violent harassment of League members, and the smears against them in The Red Flame (a publication that certainly anticipated the Red Channels bulletins of the McCarthy years that poisoned the broadcasting industry).
Rebel Earth and Survivor (both 1980, 60 minutes and 30 minutes respectively) progressively narrow the focus. Rebel Earth follows Martinson on a trek across the state, accompanied by young farmer Jon Ness (Ness and both his parents have small parts in Northern Lights). He searches for his old homestead, also finding an elderly couple who homesteaded near him. He visits the 92-year-old publisher of the Daily News in Minot, Hal Davies, and they recall the years Martinson ran the Socialist paper in town, The Iconoclast. He recalls his later-in-life marriage to a musician who “took a dim view of my organizing.” Ness takes Martinson home to his parents where a gathering of neighbors make music and Martinson reads his poems.
Survivor is a closer-up portrait of Martinson’s history, from his work on a threshing crew that one farmer didn’t want to let sleep in his barn during a blizzard, to his years in the capital with the Departments of Labor and Agriculture, to more poetry (until he died in 1981, Martinson was state poet laureate), to his job as the AFL-CIO’s state recording secretary (the oldest working labor official in the country).
In 1987 Nilsson and Hanson issued all three docs as Prairie Trilogy on a single VHS that’s long out of print. It’s not surprising to discover that Trilogy shares footage with Northern Lights, or that it illuminates the sources of some of the feature film’s plotting and incidents. There’s an historic introduction of the League’s candidate for governor, Lynn Frasier, and Martinson gives a speech in the empty state legislature’s chamber, to the delight of the film crew – these surely inform the scene in which Ray Sorenson practices his introduction of Frasier in the empty church. But, if possible, Prairie Trilogy contains an abundance of footage even more beautiful than that in Northern Lights, a tip-off that the Trilogy is not simply left-over scraps patched together but an intentional portrait that fills a gap in conventional history.
Martinson was a highly quotable, personally accomplished eye-witness, a sort of Renaissance man of his time – and we should wonder if we’re surprised to find him in the middle of the prairie. In Rebel Earth, he and Ness stop at some bars along the way, where young Ness gets in arguments – which you come to see Martinson slyly instigates. And at another point he patiently explains, reinforcing a position not unlike that Cine Manifest had come to regarding their work, “Most of the organizers had songs. It’s not enough to approach people through intellect alone. There must be something that appeals to the emotions.”
The making of Northern Lights was itself an act of rebellion, initiated in a year of critical shifts and battles within Cine Manifest. When Hanson and Nilsson already had their crew in North Dakota, colleagues back in San Francisco tried to veto the project. David Schickele, who did edit the film, thought it was a bad idea too. Nilsson and Hanson simply went ahead anyway, forming New Front Films along with attorney John Stout (who remains active in Nilsson’s ventures to this day) to manage the production. Secondly, that summer Judy Irola had gone to Copenhagen to work on a feminist film. Afterward she kept working with Cine Manifest, and overall gave the collective good marks from her new horizons, but wanted to shoot films herself. And disputes within the collective about the making of Over-Under, Sideways-Down – actually finished in advance of Northern Lights – led to the group firing Peter Gessner from both the film and the collective. Cine Manifest continued until 1978 or ’79 – depending on accounts – with some additions, and certainly with a constellation of people who repeatedly worked together over the years.
Signal 7. Nilsson made a trio of films in the mid-80s, projects he picked up, set down, alternated raising funds for and editing, as he is wont to do – very often his films come out some time after the initial shoot, and not always in order of production. These three were all released on DVD in 2005 by Koch Lorber: Signal 7 (the cabbie tale, dedicated to John Cassavetes and drawn from his own Boston cabbie days), Heat and Light (which drew on his African years, first in the Peace Corps in Nigeria and later in Biafra, and addressed the narcissism of the lead character, a obsessively jealous photojournalist whom Nilsson played himself), and the cross-country running cult classic with Bruce Dern, On the Edge.
Signal 7 seems an astute choice as an example of Nilsson’s early post-Cine Manifest work, a demonstration of both his roots and the directions in which he would go. From early on, Nilsson has said he regarded Cassavetes’ work as “not an anomaly, but a way.” Cassavetes had already made Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968) when Cine Manifest formed; during the 70s he also made such films as A Woman Under the influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and the bravura performance film Opening Night (1977). What Nilsson is now calling “direct action” has roots in both which has he refined and expanded over the years, making extensive use of cast rehearsal and work-shopping of characters’ back-stories, but not of the scenes to be filmed. (He says he “lost” a scene once, from Heat and Sunlight, that never measured up in the actual filming to its workshop improv “and I decided that was an omen"). Though he has sometimes worked from a script, the direct action films develop their dialogue and storyline in collaboration with the cast from an outline he, and often a co-writer, provide.
Last spring Nilsson told me in an interview, “I’m trying to get away from theater. With the exception of certain avant-garde styles, theatre 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. To me that’s what cinema does so much better. You can be right there in the moment. It’s the one time that interests me, the one time that this particular phrase is spoken. And is that it? No. Now I take it into what I call the alchemical lab and I start to edit.”
Beginning in near dark and jazz-fueled, Signal 7 concerns two aging cabbies, Marty and Speed (Dan Leegant and Bill Ackeridge, both Nilsson regulars), over a single night shift at DeSoto Cabs in San Francisco. There is a subtext of labor issues, to be sure – city cabbies have just rejected a bid to unionize, and both men break for late night auditions for Odets’ labor drama Waiting for Lefty. But the weight falls on their own relationship and how each provides the other with a listening ear for secret aspirations – their long-planned trip to L.A. to take up acting seriously – as well as ready-made reasons not to go in the form of other obligations. During the night a cabbie is murdered (“signal 7” is the cabbie distress call), both join their colleagues for cards and bawdy jokes, Speed picks up an Israeli woman whom he scares with his attempt to impress her and he gets a rather pretentious acting exercise that proves as harrowing to watch as it is for him. Really an inventory of the ways men try to get right the roles they think they should play, Signal 7 comes to rest in an unexpected scene of wholly unsentimental tenderness between Speed and his wife. A number of Nilsson films end at dawn with similar exhausted intimacy, a caution this may be all we have when the masks come off.
In the decades since Cine Manifest, Nilsson has continued to work collaboratively. Besides workshop projects in Japan (which resulted in Winter Oranges), Jordan (Samt/Silence, 2004) and South Africa (Frank Dead Souls, 2008), he’s gone to Kansas City (Opening, 2006). In 1989 he travelled with musicians John Cale and Brian Eno to Amsterdam, Russia and Wales around the recording of The Falklands Suite, resulting in the documentary, Words for the Dying (1990). In 1991 he set up shop in San Francisco’s red-light district for the 14-year-long Tenderloin Action Group/Tenderloin yGroup, on-going workshops that produced first the billiards classic Chalk (1996) and then 9@Night (2002-07), a nine-film cycle with overlapping time frames, key scenes that recur across films, and some fifty characters that first screened in its entirety at Harvard Film Archives in the fall of 2007. His collaboration with the San Francisco Digital Film School resulted in Security (2005) and in 2007 the haunting Presque Isle (2007), set in his paper mill hometown of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. At his own outfit in Berkeley, Citizen Cinema, Nilsson continues to offer workshops and apprentice new filmmakers. Last spring he completed Imbued with Stacey Keach. In the past year, he’s been shopping a film idea about the abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, shot footage during a pilgrimage to Trotsky’s birthplace (and, over Christmas, supplemented that with footage of the prairie outside Kansas City, the “American steppes”). Earlier this month another feature, Sand, had a first by-invitation screening in San Francisco.
From Northern Lights on, all of Nilsson’s films have had their official premiers at the Mill Valley Film Festival north of San Francisco (though Northern Lights had a first screening in Crosby, North Dakota), and he makes the festival circuit as well. Last spring he came to Syracuse, where I live, for a tribute mini-retrospective during the Syracuse International Film Festival. On that trip he left a screener here of Imbued, and next month he’ll return to Syracuse for the East Coast premiere on February 26th.
Imbued has screened at a number of other festivals since its premiere last fall at Mill Valley, and the prospect of its reaching a larger audience in the wake of AFA’s retrospective is exciting. Imbued had a script to work from and a smaller cast than usual in a Nilsson film. An aging football bookie with a fear of heights, whose fourth young, needy wife believes he’s an actuary, Donatello (Stacy Keach) sets up shop for a weekend in the upper reaches of an unfinished high-rise (Imbued was filmed in the Infinity Building, San Francisco), supplied with a couple cell phones, a quart of whiskey, his laptop, and the dictionary he’s systematically memorizing to fend off panic attacks. Arriving at the wrong address, a call-girl named Lydia (Liz Sklar) winds up staying the night. Donatello’s wife Sylvia calls (Michelle Anton Allen, from the 9@Night film, Go Together, and Presque Isle), as does his estranged crack addict daughter, Tammy (Nancy Bower), each seeking some connection with him. Both Donatello and Lydia imagine they understand the politics of gender and each is rudely albeit unmaliciously awakened, again by dawn.
Since the recent Westerns There Will Be Blood, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa, and even David Milch's Deadwood, all employed sets of framed-in, unfinished construction for pivotal scenes in such a way as to comment on American life, as the Western seems such a ready template to do – in those cases, that we are still living in that young, unfinished house – it’s hard not to hear an echo of that in this film with its gambler and saloon girl, despite the sleekness of the skyscraper.
Nilsson might demur. “Politics,” he told me, “is about choosing sides. But I can’t choose any sides, because I represent everybody in a particular context. 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 eighty years you get. You know, take a look. Take a look.’”
This article appeared on 1/22/2010 in www.thefanzine.com, editor Casey McKinney.
Judy Irola’s "Cine Manifest" doc is also available at Netflix, as are Nilsson’s "Signal 7," "Heat and Light," "On the Edge," and a recent reissue of "Words for the Dying." Irola has a new film due out this fall entitled "Niger ’66: A Peace Corps Diary." "Northern Lights" is available again on DVD from Nilsson’s Citizen Cinema in Berkeley, California, as are the "9 @ Night" films and others. "Prairie Trilogy" is not yet available on DVD, and I thank the filmmaker for lending me his VHS copy.