Tuesday, December 13, 2011

9@Night #1: Noise (Rob Nilsson, 2002)

As I noted a few posts back, I've been planning on purchasing a set of Rob Nilsson's 9@Night film series and writing about each film individually. I'd been wanting to buy the set since late 2008, when I caught a couple of the films from the series at SF's Roxie. Well, I finally took the plunge, and my set arrived a few days ago. Here is a description of the series on Nilsson's website, and here is a pdf of the 2009 Film Comment article on the series.

The first film from the set, Noise, caught me completely off guard. Having previously seen both Need and Go Together, I knew that Nilsson's series contained moments of lyricism (one might even be inclined to use the term "magical realism") in addition to the rawness that characterizes his approach. But Noise is something else entirely, a film that blends those two elements until they're inseparable, resulting in a nearly backwards-told narrative related through the use of split-screen, text, and multiple audio tracks, sometimes all at once. It could all be such a mess, and indeed on some level it is, yet it's absolutely compelling. What's more impressive is that there was no traditional script to provide any kind of predetermined structure. In addition to the performances, the film's construction in the editing room was also improvised; we are informed at the beginning of each film that "the editor frees the genie from the bottle." Out of the five films of Nilsson's that I've seen so far, this is the most stylish, yet it still feels as grounded and tethered to the here-and-now of human experience as any of his others -- to not be would betray his sensibility. The style never overpowers the actors and their performances.

The film begins and ends with a spinning, box-like object which contains seemingly thousands of black-and-white images, the audio and visuals all playing against each other and creating a near white noise as a percussive beat plays on the soundtrack. Most of the time I'm at a loss to tag a meaning on this sort of thing, but about two or three ideas ran through my head: perhaps it's a visual representation of the film's title, or the world its characters inhabit (or both). Or maybe it's a visual way of representing the stories of the series as a whole, jumbled together, playing all at once, like some sort of cosmic hologram. I may be going overboard here, but knowing that the series does share characters and intertwines in various ways, it doesn't seem so much of a stretch.

Ben Malafide, the film's main character, has just been released from prison and makes his way into San Francisco via the ferry. He's introduced to the confusion and cacophony of the modern information age, and it becomes apparent that the film's style is also a reflection of his psyche's response to this new world. In addition to that, it is as though the film's narrative, which takes place out of order, is Ben's memories of these events, his attempt to make sense out of them. It's a memory haunted by the past: at various points we're shown an ethereal image of Ben with a woman, someone he presumably once knew. We know he carries guilt over someone named Julie. It makes for a more interesting film (and character) that we never learn why. The film ends with Ben seeming to have a brief epiphany -- if nowhere else, he finds meaning in a moment shared by him and a dancing panhandler.

Nilsson's work is as DIY as it gets, and yet he is so far ahead of most of the current generation of no-budget filmmakers, who would do well to take a look these films. Whereas the current generation is often accused of self-absorption and narcissism, Nilsson humanizes his characters, the types of figures that are most often marginalized, on screen and off. Noise is pretty masterful, as far as I'm concerned, and sets the bar high. I'm hoping the rest of the series is at least almost as good.

No comments:

Post a Comment