Focusing on a type rarely given center stage in movies — the permanently angry, bullying blowhard who seems determined to alienate even long-term intimates — San Francisco-based helmer Rob Nilsson’s latest vid-shot, semi-improvised feature is a compelling but unpleasant, sometimes pretentious pic with few clear dramatic motivations or payoffs. Sixth in his “9 @ Night” series of interlocking tales set largely in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin District isn’t their most enticing intro (they can be seen in any order), but will comprise one striking panel among many when the whole project is complete. It played a one-week gig in May at NYC’s Pioneer Theater.
Spoddy (Michael Disend) is a middle-aged, Bronx-raised ex-boxer who runs an auto repair shop that launders stolen cars. He’s in debt to the same organized criminals who provide him with the goods. But it’s typical of his pissing-contest attitude that when a couple of them hit him up for a contribution to a worthwhile cause, he suggests they’re parasites.
Worse, he’s carrying on a secret affair with one of the toughs’ sisters. Much, much worse: Spoddy finds out he’s HIV-positive. After he delivers this news to aforementioned mistress (Selana Allen) — who’s living with another man, and thought Spoddy was “safe” — her enraged bro and the other enforcer come after Spoddy, shooting to kill.
Stumbling around huffing and roaring like a gored bull, Spoddy invites trouble. Yet he has a strong survival instinct, too. His flight into San Francisco’s underworld of drainage pipes, industrial parks, marshy peripheral wilderness and abandoned warehouses ends at a landfill where squatters resist police-enforced eviction. Even here, at the end of civilization’s tether, he manages to alienate everyone — though the ending leaves his fate ambiguous.
Working with his Tenderloin yGroup of actors (both professional and off-the-streets), Nilsson provides a story concept but lets the actors improv all dialogue. Resulting product is shaped in the editing room. This approach is double-edged, helping to make a fairly conventional dark-night-of-the-soul, pic unpredictable in its //scene-to-scene progress. Protag’s increasingly dire straits lend pic a waking-nightmare tenor both verite-realistic and surreal (thanks in no small part to Steve Burns and Mickey Freeman’s B&W lensing).
On the downside, pic’s disinterest in answering our questions about various characters and relationships is often more frustrating than it’s worth, and some amateur riffing is overindulged. Disend’s climactic rant at the homeless community, which has taken him in (“You lazy, sick motherfuckers — I’m not one of you, I’m all-powerful and alone!”), is an excruciating Method Acting improv one fears might never end.
As in other “9 @ Night” endeavors, characters from prior entries make fleeting appearances throughout. Daniel Feinsmith’s mournful score for solo violoncello adds a useful Greek-tragedy weight to proceedings that at times verge on the random.