In film, sometimes the artifice is more interesting than the arc of character or narration. That's certainly the case with independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson's "Heat and Sunlight," a black-and-white entry which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival.
It's a film that Nilsson admitted would not have even made it into the festival now. "Today," the avant-garde filmmaker said, "the observation of all aspects of human contact, the suffering, the joys, and the sorrows of humanity, that's not particularly in vogue at Sundance." And that's what "Heat and Sunlight" is all about: observation, rather than narration.
It's quintessential Direct Action Cinema—an aesthetic and style of filmmaking advocated by Nilsson which deemphasizes story/narrative and the role of the director. The goal is to create drama from character and circumstance while seeking emotional depth and street-level authenticity. Rather than shooting from a detailed script and with imperious direction, Nilsson meets with his "players" (he refuses to call them actors, because he often uses real people, or "civilians") to discuss a core situation. Then it's up to the players to improvise while the camera rolls. The goal is to "build drama from this dynamic closer to the way life happens to us and we happen back."
Direct Action Cinema is pretty radical, insomuch as it challenges the assumption that narrative is important. For that reason alone, "Heat and Sunlight" won't appeal to a mainstream audience raised on stories and craving action. In a sense, because the players are assuming roles that they are familiar with, or which come close to their own experiences, Direct Action Cinema predates the idea of so-called reality television and filmmaking. It's fiction insomuch as there's a core script and situation that the players explore, but it's documentary to the degree that the filmmaker and his camera observe and document the players' improvisations rather than directing them.
Before there was "24," Nilsson was making "16." In "Heat and Sunlight," Nilsson cast himself as photojournalist Mel Hurley, who arrives home from a shoot days before his birthday expecting to see his lover at the airport. But she's apparently unsure about their relationship and has become infatuated with someone else. She's gone, and over the next 16 hours, a brooding and self-pitying Hurley wallows in misery while torturing himself with mental and emotional flashbacks of their relationship. "Why do the people we love the most cause us the most pain?" he asks. "Why does the praying mantis devour her mate in the middle of making love?" Yes, there's a certain amount of pretentiousness to Hurley's "STELL-A"-like rants.
He arranges erotic photos he took of her all over his apartment, as if to refill the emptiness with her. But—and here's where it gets strange—he also juxtaposes those images against shots of starving children that he took when he was hired to call the public's attention to the casualties and horrors of the Biafran War some 20 years ago. The juxtapositions invite interpretation, but ultimately serve only to underscore the fact that Hurley isn't a terribly likable character. If he's subconsciously likening the casualties of war and the suffering of those starving children to his own emotional devastation, and his own suddenly passion-starved life, he'll get no sympathy from many viewers. Then again, Nilsson would say that it's more important for a character to be honest than likable (click here for an exclusive DVD Town interview).
Hurley sulks and pouts and tries to interact and bond with friends (Don Bajema and Ernie Fosselius), but there's no denying the depth of his hurt, and no escaping it until he decides to track his lover down and confront her, to try to get her back. Actress Consuelo Faust takes on the difficult role of Carmen, Hurley's lover—difficult, because the improvisations turn torrid, with full-nudity lovemaking, as the pair explores the fine line between love and hate, and between sex and violence. Hence, we suspect, finally, the connection to those Biafran War photographs.
Nilsson is fond of harsh-angle close-ups and quick cuts from person to person and even body part to body part. It's a distinctive style that, in this case, is certainly compatible with the emotional fragmentation of the main character and the bits and pieces of the love affair that Hurley tries to reconstruct in his mind, and rebuild, albeit frantically. It's also a style that's compatible with the minnow-like darting of emotional tangents that swim throughout the narrative: laughter, depression, anger, jealousy, love, hate, sexual arousal, sexual pain.
There are too many moments to mention in detail, but art-house film lovers will appreciate the cinematography and editing. There are a number of striking scenes filmed inside a moving vehicle with harsh-angle close-ups cut quickly into strobe-like visions of those Biafran children, with a sudden influx of light simulating the sudden fade-to-light of a burst of sunlight. There's a stagey symbolism with Hurley jogging frantically in the mountains and sand and falling prostrate in front of a white dove, which he caresses. There's a crazy scene where Hurley notices his picture missing from Carmen's apartment and goes nuts, and the violence suddenly turns to passion. And in one of the most striking scenes, Hurley opens an apartment door and light from the other side casts his shadow against the wall. As he walks down a staircase his own face becomes more and more dimly lit as he descends into a room full of shadows.
In short, this is a raw, nitty-gritty film that's almost a textbook illustration for Direct Action Cinema. There is as much to admire in Nilsson's cinematic style as there is to despise in Hurley's self-centered behavior.
Video: Nilsson pioneered the technique of shooting with videotape and later transferring it to film, which adds to the rough documentary feel. The effect is a textural mottling and porosity with lines of striation, a deliberately produced look that suggests a historical document, a rough home video, or an object examined too closely, as under a microscope. Some scenes are much clearer, and because the clarity is situational it reinforces the deliberateness of the exceptionally rough segments—and, of course, leaves it to film buffs to assign values and interpretations.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is a little rough, a little scratchy, but then again a clear and flawless soundtrack would have seemed awfully incompatible with a rough picture.
Extras: As with the other two Nilsson films that were recently released ("On the Edge" and "Signal 7"), there's a "director's featurette" that's incredibly substantial and should shame all of the major studios who insist on calling 12-minute featurettes "features." This much-longer extra shows Nilsson on camera now and back in 1986 talking about the film and the filmmaking process, and in one innovative moment we even see a split screen with the older Nilsson and the young Nilsson answering the same question simultaneously. There are other edgy, art-house moments as well, which elevate this from an extra to something a bit more artistic. There are also backstory rehearsals and plenty of insight into Nilsson's methods and intentions, including expansive comments about human nature and morality.
There's also a full-length commentary, with some overlapping but mostly new insights from the edgy director. He talks about the "fruiticide scene" and attacks the celebrity culture in America, saying it lessens all of us. "The whole idea that charisma is virtue is crazy," he rails, sounding a lot like the player in "Heat and Sunlight."
It's interesting that Consuelo Faust, his co-star, remarks that "this is a male version of love and sex," because, of course, it indicates that as Direct Action Cinema this film still falls short of the principles Nilsson set forth in his manifesto. Somehow, the director's hand and vision still dominated, despite a dedication to improvisation involving all the players. The point is, these extras continue the discussion begun by the film itself.
Bottom Line: Popular cinema-lovers be warned: this is an art-house film. "Cinema verite opened a window for filmmakers in America," Rob Nilsson says in the featurette. And "Heat and Sunlight" clearly illustrates that as a young director he jumped out of that window. There's a method to the madness of "Heat and Sunlight," and ultimately it's the method that's worthy of our attention and our continued introspection.