Summer 2006 / Summer 2007 / Rob Nilsson / Wings of Desire

Click here for best printing of text

Ray Carney: helped organize the world premiere screening of Rob Nilsson's complete "9 @ Night" sequence of films, which he has spent the past ten or fifteen years creating and has only recently finished -- something like 14 hours of interlocked, interconnected narrative in all. The films will be shown at the Harvard Film Archive, November 17 - 19, 2007. Three films in the nine-film series will be shown on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday night in succession.

Nine at Night" Nine at Night" Nine at Night" Nine at Night" Nine at Night"

Surviving on the Margin

Rob Nilsson’s “9 @ Night” Series

For 30 years, San Francisco–based Rob Nilsson has been serving as the conscience and agent provocateur of low–budget American independent filmmaking. Beginning with the award–winning Northern Lights, Signal 7, and Heat and Sunlight in the 1970s and 1980s, he has devoted his cinematic career to presenting the sorts of sociological realities, interpersonal interactions, and emotional transactions that have been screened out of big–budget, mainstream American film.

The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to present the “9 @ Night” series, Nilsson's most ambitious and controversial project to date, for the very first time in its entirety. Nilsson has created a master–narrative more than 14 hours in length, made up of nine interlocking yet independent fictional films focusing on the lives of the drifters, scam–artists, hustlers, sex–trade workers, and others who exist on the tattered fringes of American society and populate San Francisco’s poorest and most deprived neighborhood, the Tenderloin District. (Though the nine cinematic narratives mesh with each other, and contain numerous enriching cross–references, it is worth emphasizing that each film stands completely on its own, so that it is not necessary for a viewer to see the entire sequence to appreciate any one of them.) What makes the project even more daring is that Nilsson developed the stories in collaboration with actual inhabitants of the Tenderloin District, and cast the same individuals in many of the roles, which means that the actors on screen are often playing parts scarily close to the ones they play in real life, as they struggle and compete for survival at the muddy bottom of the food chain.

In line with much of Nilsson’s other work, the “9 @ Night” films are not organized around action–centered, Hollywood forms of presentation, but are character studies that chiefly focus on the troubled and troubling emotional lives of men – though all of the films include important female roles, and one of them, Need, devotes itself explicitly to exploring the emotional lives of a group of women. The narratives jump freely back and forth through the space and time of the main characters’ lives as if to demonstrate that what we are is more important than what we do.

One of the questions Nilsson explores is how individuals hold themselves together when every external form of support is taken away. What is left of life when the material rewards of capitalism, the hierarchical relationships of bureaucracy, and all dreams of personal advancement or improvement are withdrawn? “Family and friends” is the usual answer to that question, but the characters in these films don’t even have the safety net of brothers, sisters, children, parents, or close friends to break their fall. Their stints in prison or on the road have estranged them from their own pasts.

The pastoral myth would have it that to be liberated so radically is to become free; but Nilsson’s vision is darker than that. He demonstrates that the rivalries, depredations, and insensitivities of our interactions with others are not imposed on us by persons or systems external to ourselves, but are something we ourselves create – and that these outsiders re–create even as outcasts. His characters’ vulnerabilities and fears reconstitute and repeat the brutalities and cruelties of mainstream society. Pan demonstrates that even the surrogate families the homeless create among themselves repeat the dysfunctionality of the relationships in many biological families. The films are anthologies of inadvertent miscommunication, misunderstanding, and failure to connect with others even when connection is the thing most needed and desired.

Notwithstanding the nitty–gritty “realism” of the street–world Nilsson has chosen as the milieu for his series, it is critical to recognize that his real subject is not externals but internals – not characters’ physical, but their emotional states of loss and deprivation. As Pan (Kieron McCartney) puts it, as bad as “the outside pain” can be for someone living on the streets, “the inside pain … the suffering inside the body” is worse – and far more important. To bring that inner reality into view and communicate the powerful emotional and psychological forces roiling under the shabby surfaces of his characters’ lives, Nilsson employs a striking series of Bressonian poetic images, sounds, and juxtapositions. In Noise, Ben Malafide, played by Robert Viharo, (his last name is clearly metaphoric) has his story warped and transformed almost beyond recognition at moments by computerized forms of image–processing that figure cultural forces that threaten understandings of life (or solutions to his problems) couched in merely personal terms. In Attitude, the Tamburlaine character Spoddy (Michael Disend) is linked to the openness and expansiveness of the sky, birds, and the sea at the beginning of his film, and his subsequent fall is rendered as a descent into turbid, dark realms of mud, bushes, and enclosed spaces. In Scheme C6 (to my mind, the masterwork of the series), Bid’s (Cory Duval) urban–commando image of himself is rendered in a series of visually assaultive, convention–violating forward and upward movements and harshly grating, mechanical sounds, and his state of emotional unavailability is visually associated with locks, chains, doors, interiors, and dead–ends. In Stroke and Pan, the brutalizing on–rush of trains and traffic, and in several of the other films, the scale of the cityscapes in the background or looming over the characters seem to flatten them into insignificance under the pressure of American corporate power and wealth.

The meta–narrative of the entire “9 @ Night” series might be said to be the downward spiral of pain and loss that characters who have dropped beneath the bottom edge of the American cultural support system inflict on themselves – even more than on others. The path the characters in these films travel is almost always downward to darkness – or, in the case of Phil (Teddy Weiler) and Johnny (Edwin Johnson) in the final moments of Stroke, to something worse than darkness – to a complete erasure of their identities, as if they had never been born or lived at all. But the wonder of Nilsson’s vision of life is that he shows us that even on the road to hell, moments of soul–saving grace can be offered to us. A blonde “angel” makes a brief appearance near the end of Noise. Viewers are themselves surprised by joy and gifted with grace when the reason for the screams coming from a nearby car are suddenly revealed in Singing. In that same film, a shared song in a bar, or, in Pan, a goofy musical pantomime can momentarily close the gap of fear and suspicion that otherwise separates people. In Stroke (a punning title), the touch of a woman’s hand, the kindness of a friend, or the sound of a voice can give even the hopeless fleeting hope. Several of the films show how something as small as a handclasp or a look can offer the possibility of transforming all of life. Nilsson knows that miracles are constantly happening all around us, and that ministering spirits can offer salvation even as we travel down the path to perdition; but he also mourns that so few are able to receive the proffered gift.

Ray Carney

The Introduction to the “9 @ Night” series was written by and individual films in the series will be introduced by Ray Carney, professor of film and American studies at Boston University. He is the author of more than ten books on film and other art, and manages a web site devoted to independent film at:

The 9 @ Night Film Cycle

(Descriptions provided by Rob Nilsson)


Ben Malafide gets out of prison after 20 years and arrives in San Francisco by ferryboat. The Information Age assails him like a hive of angry bees. Noises, images, illusory hopes and unkept promises. Time itself seems to run forward and backward as Ben looks for the basics… a meal, a kind word, a bed for the night. Information does not equal knowledge and being hooked up does not insure communication. Street raw meets digital glitz and Ben is transported… and then thwarted. But in the midst of chaos a mysterious angel presents Ben with an unlikely source of clarity, an unequivocal gesture in a kaleidoscopic world.

Robert Viharo
Paige Olson
Josh Peterson
Bill Ackridge
Don De Fina
Phil Palmer

STORY BY Rob Nilsson
PRODUCTION MANAGER Gabriela Maltz Larkin
SOUND Rand Crook, T.J. Walkup
EDITOR Josh Williams
SOUND MIX Mike McGovern
PRODUCED WITH ASSISTANCE FROM Hemmerling Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Bay Area Video Coalition, Pomegranit Editorial
MUSIC Daniel Feinsmith
CO- PRODUCTION Pacific Rim Media, Rand Crook & Ethan Sing
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS David and Carol Richards
PRODUCERS Rob Nilsson, Chikara Motomura, Kevin Michael Winterfield
DIRECTOR Rob Nilsson

# 2 USED

Ben Malafide has been in prison for 20 years. His nerves are shot, his feelings shriveled. St. Tre, who runs an escort service and a strip club has taken him in. Ben feels he has nothing to offer her. She feels kinship as a fellow outsider, and loves him as a twin, a lost soul. But St. Tre has a weakness. She is a card player, and has amassed large gambling debts, mostly to Kenny Nordstrom who manages Schumacher’s gambling clubs in Northern California. Kenny is secretly in love with St. Tre but, afraid to show it, he keeps everything on a business level.

St. Tre wants to take out a loan from Kenny, to cover what she owes, and to keep on gambling. But Kenny needs a co-signer. Malafide’s broke, an ex- con with only one asset: certain plates he has stashed away. He spent 20 years in San Quentin for counterfeiting but they never found the evidence. She thinks about it. Maybe Kenny would take them as surety for the loan. She has them copied and brings them to him. Malafide catches her returning them. A big blow up. Malafide takes the plates and returns to the streets.

Now the film weaves two trips to Nevada into a single strand. Malafide meets Johnny, a Black man, beaten and dumped on the railroad tracks. They hop a freight bound for Reno in search of People T., a Cherokee healer Malafide knew in prison. This results in a box car pilgrimage to the Nevada desert where People T. had been a cowboy in his youth. St. Tre and Kenny also head for Reno to find her nephew Sherm, who is supposedly an expert in counterfeiting. They meet him at a high stakes poker game and he gives them a desultory lesson in the ins and outs of two bit computer crime.

Two futile pilgrimages lead the pilgrims in only one direction: empty- handed back where they came from. Everyone has used and been used. USED is a latter day WAITING FOR GODOT except that no one has either the patience to wait or anything worth waiting for.


Spoddy is a garage mechanic who knows everything about cars but hates them. He takes the subway. He is brilliant, arrogant, with a particular scorn for people on society's edges... homeless, street people, everyone who reminds him of his worst fears about himself. Spoddy is an impossible small time auto thief who alienates everyone.

Then he is diagnosed with AIDS. Stunned, self pitying, enraged and in denial, he confronts his Black girl friend, sister of two tough partners in crime. But she is not sympathetic. She rages at him. Where did he get it? When he suggests she's the source the bottom falls out of his life.

Her brother comes to his garage ready to kill him. He escapes with only the clothes on his back. Now the people he despises the most... society's flotsam and jetsam, squatters on a forlorn landfill which juts into San Francisco Bay are the only people who can help him. But they know what he thinks about them.

Spoddy's only true love is for birds. Though gifted with flight... they are completely vulnerable when they land. Wings clipped, Spoddy awaits his fate.


Michael Disend…………………… Spoddy
Robert Viharo…………………….. Malafide
Edwin Johnson…………………… Johnny
Meryl……………………………… Selana Allen
Big E ……………………………... Marion Christian
Blackie ……………………………. Vernon Medeiros

Directors of Photography………………… Steve Burns, Mickey Freeman
Sound……………………………………. Alex Putney
Editor……………………………………. Chikara Motomura
Sound Mix………………………………. Al Nelson


Perry Truman wanted to be an important genetic engineer. Mandy, his unmarried live-in girl friend of 20 years, still practices for the career as an opera diva which will never happen. In a dead-end professionally, their sex life is in no better shape. Mandy tries to entice the increasingly alienated Perry into a sexual tryst he can't respond to. A violent argument results in Perry tossed out of the house and catapulted into a night of erotic games and dangerous intrigues in the night streets of San Francisco. SINGING is an Ulysses in Night Town exodus amidst the denizens of San Francisco's après garde underground.


TAMMY YOUNG………… Dancer

Story by Improvised by

PRODUCTION SOUND MIXERS Rand Crook, T.J. Walkup, Saul Rouda
PRODUCTION MANAGER Gabriela Maltz-Larkin
ART DIRECTION Jennifer Burns
EDITOR Josh Peterson
ON-LINE EDITOR Ian Williamson
ON-LINE FACILITY Pacific Video Resources
SOUND EDITORS Al Nelson, Josh Peterson


Phil Berkowitz, a 55 year old North Beach poet and survivor of the days of wine and roses, has a stroke. Helpless, he lies in his flea bag hotel room in San Francisco’s Tenderloin until he is found by Johnny, his next door neighbor.

Johnny, a 60 year old Black man, barely survives working part time janitorial in a seedy strip club and escort service but, breaking hotel rules, he lets the recovering Phil stay in his room and tries to help him regain his speech. He also tries to play Cupid, introducing Phil to Svetlana, Polish, 35, a Tenderloin waitress, ex-model and recovering alcoholic. Svetlana feels sorry for Phil, but Phil mistakes kindness for attraction, a recipe for disaster.

Thrown out of their hotel for breaking house rules, Johnny and Phil become homeless in San Francisco’s chilly streets, aware that if anything were to happen to them, no one would even know they were gone. The people society has forgotten might as well be picked up by space ships. Unknown and unremembered, they just cease to exist.


A scheme is a dream with street smarts…. but doomed to fail. A modern urban film which recalls I VITELLONI or THE LIZARDS… SCHEME C6 is a film about people with a plan, a self-defeating mechanism, a reach which exceeds grasp.

Bid is a self-styled urban commando, determined to live outside the system and the law. A hustler in high end auto parts, he is homeless by choice. All his gear in a storage locker, he plies the city on a motorcycle, counting coup on the cops which include his father who is trying to get him to reconcile with his family, including, his grandfather Ponto. His friend Grey is older and on the decline. A white rapper, with a plan to promote hip-hop acts, he works as a chauffeur, using his limo to help Bid transport stolen parts.

Yve is Bid’s girl friend, bi-sexual, ambitious but without direction. Neither she nor Bid want to make a commitment, and their high energy relationship mates guerilla warfare with a high tensile romantic innocence. Neither wants to compromise… but their friendship always seems about to go up in flames.

Bid’s sister Reva, an aspiring singer, is having an affair with Rico, a lawyer Bid believes is fleecing the family and nobody understands Salowitz, Ponto’s eccentric assistant. Bid sets up Grey to ask Ponto to fund his music scheme which sets off a tragic series of events.

Finally schemes and dreams both give way to something stronger… accident, fate, it’s hard to say how the story lines we choose for ourselves suddenly dissolve and we’re face to face with a disaster we never saw coming.


NEED goes into the shady alleys and smoky bars explored in many films with “noir” pedigree and genre intentions but takes a different tack. It tries to avoid the stereotypes of underworld life and the conventions of crime shows and detective series. Instead of “satin sheets, satin pillows” fatalism. it depicts the fragile friendships, the familial struggles, the competition as well as the solidarity between four women who work in the sex business in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. It is also a personal look at four distinct people and the people they love, deceive, endure and seek to know.

Petite struggles to hold onto her relationship with Tyrone, a pool hustler, while Jane works as a stripper in the Gold Club. Lou, Jane’s mother and a heroin addict, is a renegade aging prostitute who works the streets and bars in defiance of the pimps. Francesca manages an escort service and does phone sex.

The film concentrates on the shared experiences which hold these women together and the strains of the business which threaten their friendship. In a profession which thrives on fantasy and martyrdom they struggle to hold onto their reasons for caring for each other.

#8 PAN

Bobby is a latch-key kid, a lonely 9 year old boy who plays at home as his single mother works to support them. His father was an artist and Bobby often goes into his studio to look at the paintings left just as they were the day he died. Twisted bodies writhe across the canvases, confusing and disturbing. One day Bobby sees a homeless man rummaging in the garbage. He follows him to an encampment by the railroad tracks where Pan, an ex-convict who has gathered a dysfunctional street family under his wing, takes an interest in him. Pan takes Bobby into the streets to show him the good and bad in people, hoping to be the kind of example he never had when he was young. One day Bobby persuades Pan to come home with him to explain his father’s paintings. Pan knows he shouldn’t but does, leading to violent consequences for both of them. Everyone who seeks an unorthodox family in America runs up against the taboos society imposes on outsiders. Even in a society which considers itself free, conformity is the safest form of expression.


GO TOGETHER chronicles the sinking fortunes of an Oakland art cinema. Michelle, co- owner with her husband Denny, wants to continue programming the high minded films she believes in while her husband flirts with the idea of a highly profitable “vintage porn” night promoted by St. Tre, owner of a strip club and escort service. Meantime, St. Tre’s boy friend Ben Malafide aka Aldo Modisco, on parole from prison, begins to think that life in prison is preferable to the illusory “freedoms” of life in society. While the bills pile up, homeless people begin to camp in the alley outside the theatre. And oddest of all, the theatre itself begins to “speak”. Is this magic or is someone playing a trick on them? As Denny and Michelle’s relationship continues to deteriorate around the porn issue, the last of the 9 @ Night film cycle marries neo-realism to surrealism and suggests poetic connections not usually found in a movie theatre.

Summer 2006 / Summer 2007 / Rob Nilsson / Wings of Desire


Top of Page

Text copyright 2007 by Ray Carney. But reproduction and reprint rights are hereby not reserved. As long as Ray Carney's authorship is indicated, any or all of the material on this page may be used by anyone interested in publicizing these films. Ray Carney also hereby gives written permission to the filmmakers listed above to use these statements, in whole or in part, on their web sites, in press releases, on video boxes, or wherever they can help bring attention to them and their work.