Pushing 70 but more prolific than ever, Amerindie veteran Rob Nilsson figured in no fewer than three features at Mill Valley Fest this year. He’s an interviewee in ’70s-film-collective docu “Cine Manifest.” As director, he premiered “Pan,” latest in the “9 @ Night” series of interrelated San Francisco narratives. Then there’s “Opening,” a one-off collaboration with the Kansas City, Mo. Filmmakers’ Jubilee. While this exercise sounds like a formalist experiment — conceived, cast-improvised and shot in three marathon days — it emerges as a very entertaining Altman-esque ensemble piece that should attract further fest play and possible DVD exposure.
Drawn in brisk but mostly not-too-broad strokes, the 24 or so characters here (many supposedly close to their thesps’ real-life personas, and not all flatteringly so) are attendees at an art gallery’s monthly opening/cocktail party in K.C.’s rapidly gentrifying downtown. Rivalries, secrets, backbiting and hidden agendas run thick as thieves. Facing possible eviction, gallery owner Martha (Elisabeth Kirsch) is infuriated by the gate-crashing of ultra-smooth-talking developer Denny (Denny Dey), and in no mood to deal simultaneously with her own whiny daughter’s aggressive promotion of a fledgling “artist”-slash-boyfriend.
The two female artists being showcased this month, Sally (Sally Bremenkamp) and Rossana (Rossana Jeran), are resentfully competitive. Rossana is also carrying on a secret affair with a patron whose husband now susses out the truth. A snarly young couple (Kevin Pruitt, Kit Shea) seem to have shown up just to antagonize everyone else.
These and numerous other figures mingle testily until the news that a tornado is en route sends everyone scuttling into the claustrophobic basement. There, tensions threaten to boil over into soap-opera contrivance. But once the storm breaks, the pic manages a sustained closing grace note that restores its witty, grounded balance.
Pic deftly balances humor, intrigue, realism and social satire in a refreshing mix that acknowledges there’s high culture — and the usual high-culture snobbery — in the supposedly bland Heartland.
As per Nilsson’s “Direct Action Cinema” guidelines, the mostly non-pro cast invented its own characters and dialogue in an intensive collective process, also helping as crew where needed. Pic was shot at a Kansas City art gallery (the Dolphin) facing exactly the gentrification issues raised.
Fleet editing and hand-held camera achieve an ideal fly-on-wall effect, though emphasis on sotto-voce talk — as it would be at an actual gallery event — means some dialogue is hard to catch. Closing credits run over a mini making-of that delightfully encapsulates the pic’s seemingly impossible, hectic development process.