The fact that Rob Nilsson isn't a household name may actually be a credit to the type of work he does. Since winning the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1979 and the Grand Prize at Sundance in 1988, the filmmaker has steered his career into relative obscurity by maintaining a steady course along the high road.
I arrive at his "compound" -- on an industrial block of Berkeley -- straight from a showing of Rob's latest movie, Chalk, at the Lumiere. The story of a small-time East Bay pool hustler, the film is truly moving, and I am anxious to see which of the actors, as promised, Rob has invited to dinner.
For the past seven years Rob's work has centered around a unique acting workshop, the Tenderloin Action Group, which began as a training program for homeless people who wanted to work in acting and film production. The workshops have since mushroomed into a project of their own, changing a great number of people's lives, including Rob's. Chalk is the first feature film to result.
To locate Rob's apartment I follow a set of directions that begins, "Walk past the nun-masseuse's house in front." I do, eventually finding my way around and up into Rob's authentic artist's loft.
Meeting Rob, I'm surprised and encouraged to see this distinguished-looking, graying-haired gentleman casually sipping a cold Mickeys big mouth.
Rob introduces me to Edwin Johnson, whom I immediately recognize as Watson, the bar owner in Chalk. Edwin is equally distinguished-looking, but in a wholly different way: He is a human being, the authentic kind not usually seen on the big screen. And his performance in Chalk is mesmerizing. For the rest of the evening I will have trouble looking at Edwin and not trying to
imagine the past that has led him to this wonderfully unlike-ly place.
In the kitchen I meet Bridget Burch Chavis, Edwin's angelic-faced cousin, who's also an actor in the Tenderloin workshops. She's offered to cook tonight because, as Rob tells me, "That's not my specialty."
The walls of Rob's loft are covered with paintings and prints, all of his own hand. A spiral staircase leads up to his studio, and posters from his past films show off their frayed edges. Books are everywhere.
But the apartment is dominated by Rob's bed. The draw is not just its central location, low and frameless on the floor at the far end of the room, but the enormous -- probably 40 inch --television set butting directly against the foot of the mattress. The combination looks like a giant letter L, or a command seat on the Starship Enterprise from which Rob steers his personal universe.
To complement the TV-bed, the room is filled (in bookcases and shelves and piles) with, by a conservative estimate, about 2,000 videocassettes. It is clear that Rob is quite literally married to his work.
We gather in the center of the room and begin what is to be a long and engaging night of discussing Rob's films, Edwin's acting, and today's cinema.
Rob is frustrated with the formulaic, big-budget "crap" coming out of Hollywood. He resents films that simply "look good" or are "well done." Eagerly anticipating another renaissance from the next generation of artists, he asks, "Where is the human experience? Where are the films we can grow with?"
Dinner is ready.
Bridget is serving her grandmother's authentic Louisiana jambalaya over rice. The stew is thick with shrimp and sausage, tomatoes, onions, okra, and big chunks of Serrano chile peppers. Still, the sauce is intentionally a bit too bland for my taste, because, Bridget explains, "not everybody likes it spicy."
The same problem plagues Rob and his cinematic contemporaries. The films he admires are filled with life, and truth, and acting that he calls "dripping hot."
Rob believes the answer is to re-educate audiences, teaching them to look beyond the tasteless, unfulfilling recipes of Hollywood for an appreciation of films that "pick up the art and move it forward." For his own part, he intends to remain true to a vision that has thus far precluded fame or fortune: He and his actors have embarked upon a nine-film series, titled 9 at Night, which is to be set in the heart of the Tenderloin.
For the first time I notice the framed certificate on the wall, crooked and hid-den beyond the staircase. It's the Camera d'Or -- almost 20 years old and nearly forgotten.
Rob's films are clearly part of a greater mission, which will continue, he says, "as long as they don't take away the house. Or if they do, we'll get a tent." We all laugh. After a brief pause Rob turns to Edwin, concluding, "We do have a lot of fun doing it, though, don't we?"
Edwin smiles obligingly, before turning and silently considering the full significance of the question.
Chalk screens Nov. 18-24 at the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley.
By Barry Levine
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