Rob Nilsson’s artistic cred couldn’t be tighter. A Cassavetes mentee, he won Cannes’s Camera d’Or for Northern Lights (1979) and Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Heat and Sunlight (1988); his Signal 7 (1985) was the first small-format-video-to-film feature release. In the 1990s, Nilsson’s early embrace of digital video positioned him as a homegrown answer to Dogme 95. His own manifesto, “Direct Action Cinema,” called for collaborative, jazz-analog filmmaking as a means toward aesthetic and humanistic freedoms. Nilsson’s newest work, Attitude, was created with San Francisco’s Tenderloin yGroup, a drama workshop for inner-city residents, some of them homeless. Though a social-work milieu combined with idealistic art-talk sounds like a recipe for disaster, the results are neither the touchy-feely do- goodism nor Dogmatic dementia one might fear.
Shot in black-and-white, Attitude follows Spoddy (Michael Disend)—auto mechanic, part-time thief, and raging Nietzschean egomaniac—through various interactions with fellow underclass characters. After an unwelcome diagnosis from his doctor, Spoddy spirals further out of control. Like much improv drama, Attitude occasionally devolves into repetitive rants. But Nilsson’s handheld lensing is a blend of smooth home-movie closeness and expressive formal compositions. Themes of freedom and its abuses are articulated through Disend’s Frankensteinian frame, and a literary deployment of bird motifs. Nilsson has long been pegged as part of a trend. With DV hype as dead as a dotcom, perhaps his actor-centered work will be appreciated on its own merits.