Monday, October 15, 2007

Rob Nilsson inspires at Mill Valley Film Fest

I went to the Mill Valley Film Festival this weekend for the premiere of two of Rob Nilsson's films "Used" and "Go Together". We are friends and supporters of each other and share similar beliefs about the purpose and potential of cinema.

But I also support Rob's filmmaking for another reason - one that reaches far beyond our personal relationship and speaks to new paradigms of creative and social interaction.

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If you looked up independent filmmaker on wikipedia, it really should show Rob's picture. He is the true and quintessential independent filmmaker. He eschews the limits of conventional film grammar, choosing to explore the raw essence of humanity as cinematic poetry and working with a full palette of blemishes, contradictions, discomforts and dysfunctions.

In the process, he uses whatever means necessary to realize his work and will invite any kindred soul along for the ride. He's resourceful, but in service of a true creative agenda and not any ulterior ego or profit-driven motive.

Finally, he doesn't sit around pining for some inept, crass distribution outfit (which almost all of them are) that offers nothing of value to either the public or the filmmaker. He makes his films available directly to audiences through festivals and special screenings - as well as through his own DVD distribution. He continually works to build his audience, enlisting people every time he screens someplace to join the 15,000 - the body of supporters and/or appreciators who form the bulk of his potential revenue stream. (Go to Citizen Cinema).

And he has been doing this for years. Many years. And will not stop doing it anytime soon.

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Rob tends to see himself as simply an artist and educator (with an admittedly strong opinion about the current dysfunctional "indie film" paradigm). However, I see him as a social revolutionary. He doesn't just operate outside the bounds of any traditional structure by necessity, he does it by choice and blazes as many trails as possible to make it work. Supporting that choice, includes building a viable alternative paradigm that will directly connect an artist to his/her audience. Many claim to be trying to do that (google, youtube, myspace), but they are really just trying to control that connection. It can only really be revolutionized by individuals like Rob. And once he - or others like him in this and other disciplines - figure it out, then others will follow and we will truly begin to see a re-configuring of the current social AND economic dynamic (check out The Long Tail Theory).

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Anyway, the Mill Valley Film Festival has been a strong supporter of Rob's work and, in doing so, has proven itself a heroic champion of "citizen cinema". So, I make it a point to support both Rob and the festival. And it's a damn good festival by the way, from a filmmakers' perspective (I had "Egg" there in 2001 and "Transaction" in 2005). So, me, FA member Cain DeVore (who acts, and is great, in "Used") and FA Vice-Prez Amanda Sweikow took the drive up to the fest for the two back-to-back premieres on Saturday night.

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It was, as we expected, a wonderful night. The audience was filled with Rob's extended filmmaking family and many of the players in his films. These were the last films to premiere of the 9@Night series that Rob began back in 2000 - born out of the marriage of creative and personal exploration. The films in the series are "Direct Action" films - a filmmaking process that Rob describes for the audience by presenting the graphic below before each film.

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Rob's films are clearly not for everybody. Nor are they intended to be. He does not make films for the lowest common denominator. Nor does he make them for snide "indie" insiders or the so-called cultural elite. He makes them for those that can appreciate his particular brand of cinematic poetry. I admit to being challenged at times by Rob's work. Even in my favorite films of his, I can have an issue with this or that moment - or this or that idea. But for me, that is precisely what makes them special. These moments and ideas are always rendered with his unique artistry and with a depth of feeling and honesty that you will absolutely not see in any other film. Because this is HIS film with his skills, intentions, artistic choices, etc. at play. By definition, there will be diversity in our responses to this kind of work and that is why they are a necessary antidote to the corporate product that clogs up our theaters and elicits scientifically engineered - Pavlovian - responses in its audiences.

That being said, I loved both of these films for very different reasons. Will they play in Peoria? They definitely could to a few brave souls....and, hopefully, will.

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I was struck by many things while watching the films, of course - the aesthetics, the "Direct Action" process, the huge journey of the entire series of films and many other things. But one especially striking thing was to be reminded of what a great actor Rob is. It's fun to see him work in that capacity because he brings such subtle depth and complexity to even the most minor appearances on the screen. It's no wonder he is so strong with actors. The other especially striking thing was the sense of completion I felt as the credits rolled on "Go Together". I was suddenly hit full in the face with what an amazing accomplishment this whole series of films had been. And I remembered back to when Rob first told me about them (having only done 3 of them) and my feeling that this was a rather impossible feat that may never see fruition. But here they were - realized just as they were conceived.

The fact that these were the last films in that series to roll out gave the evening a special poignancy and Rob was visibly moved after the end of "Go Together" when the audience rose to give him a standing ovation.

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I don't want to ghetto-ize Rob by labeling him an intellectual, but he is by and large a serious man and a serious thinker. But he is also incredibly passionate and that passion translates to less serious pursuits like drinking, flirting and laughing which we all did in abundance at the after party - first at the Broken Drum, then until the wee hours at the home of David, one of the actors in "Used" and "Go Together" who's also a musician.

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Reflecting on the night during the drive home, I couldn't help but feel deeply appreciative - not just of my friendship with Rob, but of the very fact of his work and that of all those around him. The 9@Night film series is truly a monumental accomplishment...and experiment - no matter how you respond to the films themselves. Rob's risk-taking, both in the films' aesthetics and in their management is and will continue to pay huge dividends to all of us who can conceive of a creative landscape where it is possible to see cinema as art and aspire to create something that means more to our souls than our egos - something that resonates within us - and out to the world around us - without the slavery of profit and pretension.

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