Three decades after John Cassavetes’ trail-breaking “Shadows” and two decades after Norman Mailer’s “Beyond the Law,” director/star Rob Nilsson and his company keep alive the idea of group movie improvisations in “Heat and Sunlight” (at the Monica 4-Plex), a day-to-dawn diary of a photographer’s disintegrating relationship with a dancer, set in a fascinatingly on-the-edge, aging, hip San Francisco milieu.
It’s a world of artists, outcasts and leftists: the proto/Boho North Beach fringe area caught in stark, vibrant black-and-white images. In his choice of subject and sources and the vitality of his attack, Nilsson comes off as a classic, unreconstructed ‘60s radical. Yet his anti-Establishment stance belies the romanticism and self-absorption of the subject matter: The Man Alone, The Man Wounded, picking up the rags of his life in a world that disappointed him.
Photographer Mel Hurley (played by Nilsson), is the idealist burned, a shaggy-haired, craggy rebel whose style is pure Brando/Dean: leather jacket, black bikini shorts and lots of tentative self-caresses. Mel’s life had a psychological pivot, a 1970 Biafra shoot of starving children, when, convinced he could save the world with his camera, he kept on shooting even when he ran out of film. Now, on his birthday, his life in chaos, he’s simply trying to save a love affair. His girlfriend, modern dancer Carmen (Consuelo Faust), shattered him again by taking seriously his suggestion of an “open” relationship.
Everyone revolves around Mel and his Weltschmerz : Carmen, his buddies Mitch (Don Bajema) and Bobby (Ernie Fosselius). even chance conversations in a bar add to his private purgatory. Yet the film is a communal effort, improvised by the cast from an outline and shot on video equipment with multiple cameras.
Nilsson is not after the illusion of life. In a way, he’s after life itself: life as he believes it was captured in the cinema verite of Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman, the guts-out psychological dramas of John Cassavetes.
Nilsson is the most intensely dedicated of Cassavetes’ American admirers--but his style sometimes suggests the husk of Cassavetes. Group improvisation on camera, after all, is something Cassavetes, after “Shadows,” rarely did.
The performances, while riveting and raw, don’t always connect. Sometimes, they suggest people trying to find or yell their way into a scene. The most consistently convincing role is the most stylized: filmmaker Fosselius as Bobby, the yatta-yatta- yatta comic who’s pioneered a new art, stand-up comedy without humor.
“Heat and Sunlight” (Times-rated Mature, for nudity, sex and language) won the 1988 Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize. And it deserved it for many reasons: the stunning black-and-white graphics, the inventive and even poetic editing, the audacity of its eroticism and self-revelations, the power of the best actor’s moments--and most of all, as an exemplary work for all filmmakers working outside conventional systems.
There’s a paradox. Nilsson’s whole technique is devoted to freeing up actors. Yet, what may be best about this film is its look, its shape, its rhythm and visual style. Nilsson, along with his cinematographers and editor, has quite an eye. Happily, one never gets the impression he’d keep on shooting for a minute without film in the camera.
‘Heat and Sunlight’
Rob Nilsson: Mel Hurley
Consuelo Faust: Carmen
Don Bajema: Mitch
Ernie Fosselius: Bobby
A Snowball Productions/New Front Alliance Film production, released by the Stutz Co. Director/script Rob Nilsson. Producers Steve Burns, Hildy Burns. Cinematographer Tomas Tucker. Editor Henk van Eaghen. Music David Byrne, Brian Eno. Additional Music: Mark Adler, David Schickele, Michael Small. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Times-rated: Mature (sex, nudity, language).