Jenni Olson summarizes her film The Joy of Life as "an unconventional blending of documentary and experimental narrative strategies, combining stunning 16mm landscape cinematography with a bold, lyrical voiceover (performed by L.A.-based artist/actor Harriet 'Harry' Dodge) to share two San Francisco stories: the history of the Golden Gate Bridge as 'suicide landmark,' and the story of a butch dyke in San Francisco searching for love and self-discovery. The Joy of Life is a film about landscapes, both physical and emotional."
It is also a vertiginous cautionary tale on falling—not only in love but off bridges. Favorably received at its Sundance premiere, The Joy of Life has been called "thrillingly minimalist" and "gently hypnotic" by Rob Nelson of The Village Voice. "Quiet as a reflecting pool in a meditation garden," Anne Stockwell writes for The Advocate, the film "speaks to [Jenni Olson's] substance as a filmmaker and a friend."
It has since gone on to win Best Outstanding Artistic Achievement at Outfest 2005 and Best U.S. Narrative Screenplay at the 2005 Newfest and has been written about evocatively by Candace Moore for AfterEllen, Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal, Kim Voynar for Cinematical, Bérénice Reynaud for Senses of Cinema, and Susan Gerhard and Dennis Harvey for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, just to name some of my favorites.
With one of the main tenents of Girish Shambu's experimental film blogathon being the availability of experimental film, I felt the recent dvd release of The Joy of Life qualified it as a perfect and timely candidate for the blogathon and I sought Jenni out for an interview.
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Michael Guillén: Jenni, when I saw Joy of Life last year at the International Film Festival, I was intrigued by its experimental format. I have a question for you regarding the structure of the film. As someone who is relatively new to experimental film, I was wondering if the film was achieved through an assemble edit after the fact? Did you go into the project knowing what it was going to be?
Jenni Olson: I always knew that I wanted there to be three basic parts and elements. I wanted one part to be a first person diary format voiceover. I wanted one section of it to be some kind of archival audio and I had looked at various things for that before settling on Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading his poem "The Changing Light." And then I wanted a third part to be some kind of historical documentary about San Francisco, or having to do with some topic related to San Francisco and, again, I researched a few different realms before settling on the Golden Gate Bridge. At one time I was looking at the old railroad right of ways in the city of San Francisco and another plan was looking at the history of telephone exchange names in San Francisco.
MG: So you're interested in the city's textural history?
Jenni: Particularly obscure things people aren't aware of. So, yeah, initially I wanted the film to have these three elements to it. I also ended up having this lengthy aside about the production history of Meet John Doe, which I think of as a forced part of the film, which wasn't necessarily part of my original plan. But, yeah, I always wanted it to be in three parts.
MG: Was that based on somebody's influence? Was there some other experimental filmmaker who was doing a tripartite division? Where did that come from?
Jenni: Well, two things: One is, there is a film that was very influential to me called Massillon by William E. Jones. He is a very good friend who made this film in 1991, which is about growing up gay in Ohio. It's similar in structure. The first part is a first-person—actually, he's doing the voiceover about growing up gay in Ohio—and the second part is audio of a radio broadcast of a homophobic rightwing preacher talking about "evil homosexuals", and then the third part is a look at urban planning in Santa Clarita, California. In that sense it's very similar. That was very influential, that you could accomplish that, that you could mix three very different things together, and I wanted to make a feature-length film and I wanted to tackle all these different things so that's part of why I tried to cram it all into one film.
MG: It was effective. As someone who is relatively unfamiliar with experimental film, it proved educational and intriguing. It made me start looking at more experimental pieces. You need to commend yourself for generating that kind of interest. What is it about that structure that you felt more effectively related your ideas than, let's say, a narrative feature? I'm trying to understand why your choice is to go towards experimental film rather than a narrative feature.
Jenni: I guess I just have always been far more interested in unconventional styles of filmmaking, so experimental film—whatever you call it, experimental film, hybrid filmmaking, nonconventional forms like personal documentaries—to me as a viewer and as a film critic and film historian and film programmer and film fan, I have seen so many conventional works, conventional narratives or conventional documentaries, which I love watching; I'm just not very interested in making one. I'm much more interested in the form and structure of filmmaking and just trying to do something different.
MG: I would say Joy of Life is actually more like a piece of sculpture. That's what intrigued me. Also—as we were discussing at the Persistent Vision Conference—I felt your film was the best expression of a butch dyke identity that I had ever seen and I know that at the conference there was this panel about "We Want Our Dykeback Mountain", this thirst for a lesbian crossover feature, and yet I felt that you got across more about that identity through this experimental medium. Do you think there's too much focus on narrative features?
Jenni: First of all, thank you for your complimentary comparisons. I think it's inevitable that people would want to see conventional feature-length narratives about gay life and diverse queer representations just because that's the society that we live in and primarily that's the filmmaking that we're exposed to. So it's inevitable that that's what most people are going to want. Personally, I feel like I am in all different ways much more interested in nonconventional forms or even more DIY (do it yourself) scrappy people getting their hands on a camera who have never made a movie and just have something more interesting to say. Or people who have not yet been heard from.
MG: As someone who has only recently been researching experimental film, I was surprised to discover there's actually quite a queer-associated history for this. With regard, let's say, to "experimental film" history, queer expression has been such a vital part of the development of experimental film. Kenneth Anger was some of the first stuff I ever saw. Jack Smith was some of the first I ever saw. Sadie Benning. These queer artists had a strong influence on shaping experimental film. Were you influenced by any of those people?
Jenni: Yeah, yeah, totally and that's exactly the thing: the history of experimental film and the history of gay film is the same history. If you look at much of the early experimental work, it's gay work. That comes out of a sense of being outsiders and having more interesting things to say and more interesting ways to say them. I was particularly influenced by Su Friedrich and Marlon Riggs, William Jones as I said, Sadie Benning, and also Chantal Ackerman.
MG: Thinking of Joy of Life's inherent tripartite structure, I'm considering that the life of the film has likewise been tripartite. First there was the initial ramp-up and the creative process where you conceived it and you went out and shot it and in your mind pieced it together. Then it had its successful festival life, it won several awards and traveled around the country. And now it's going to go into its third life of dvd distribution where it's going to have the capacity of reaching a much larger audience. What's your feeling about that? Are you excited about that? Do you have hopes attached to a broader distribution?
Jenni: It's really exciting in terms of reaching larger audiences. Definitely, as an experimental filmmaker, I'm very aware that the kind of work that I make is going to be of interest to a smaller audience, necessarily. I do feel like I set out to make something that would be very much experimental and very much the film that I wanted to make but that would be more accessible than other experimental films, that people might actually come out of it and say, "Well, that wasn't that difficult and actually it was quite accessible." I hope that will continue to be the case with the dvd release.
MG: Does the dvd have any extra features?
Jenni: The extras on the dvd are three earlier short films that I made—Blue Diary, Sometimes and Meep Meep!
MG: I'm glad to hear that. That was going to be one of my questions: where could we find your earlier short pieces.
Jenni: Yeah, that's exciting that I'm able to get my short films out there too. And then the trailer is on there—which is all of 30 seconds long—and there's a little extra thing about the history of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge that's an update on where that is at right now.
MG: Where are we with that right now? I know the film inspired the board for the bridge to reconsider a study on a suicide prevention rail. Do you know where they are with that?
Jenni: Right now they actually have a request for proposals for someone to do the feasibility study. It's basically the beginning of this two-year study to explore the feasibility of a barrier, which includes doing things like coming up with designs and doing wind tunnel testing and looking at the engineering and aesthetic issues and that's getting started now and that will be going on for the next couple of years. It's a long process.
MG: I know that the section of Joy of Life that explored the history of suicide with regard to the Golden Gate Bridge was in tribute to your friend Mark Finch. Has the film helped you resolve his death in any way? I know that he—in that place where people continually live—must be grateful to you for your memory of him.
Jenni: That's a nice thought. I don't know. It's been part of the process of my life, I guess. The best thing about it has been connecting with other people. I find that a lot of people will come up to me after screenings who have lost someone to suicide—not necessary off of the bridge but in whatever way—and have expressed that the film spoke to them in some way.
MG: It spoke to me in its longing. I came to San Francisco in 1975. I grew up here. I remember so many nights that I was out late and dragging myself home at dawn when the city was half-vacant and abandoned. All the thoughts that I would have at that time, I found unbelievably mirrored in the narrative voiceover of the first section of the butch dyke longing for love, which I understand was based on your own Fuck Diaries? What I felt came across in The Joy of Life—and I think you have even called it this—was a butch vulnerability that I found unique to lesbian voice that I had not heard before. Do you feel you're the main exponent of that voice.
Jenni: [Laughs.] The main exponent of butch vulnerability, I like that. As a queer film historian, it's been my experience that obviously in general LGBT people have fewer representations than the mainstream, whatever, straight people. Each sub-identity in our community suffers from not enough visibility or not enough representations of our stories. Being butch, I've been very aware that there are few films that speak to me or to my experience as a butch dyke and so that was something that was really important to me, to try to tell a story and speak to an audience, particularly a butch audience. I feel we're all hungry for representations of ourselves and our experience in a more nuanced way. You asked earlier about why this form and not a more conventional form, I do think that experimental form is uniquely able to tell a more complex story. Using the diary format was very effective in conveying an intimate experience. I would say that this is something that I was influenced by Su Friedrich, a lesbian experimental filmmaker, and Sadie Benning similarly, who will tell a very specific personal intimate story that is so much about one person's experience that it facilitates a million other people connecting to it in an experiential way, saying, "Oh, that's like me or that's exactly what my experience is like."
MG: I came upon that overarching insight when I was reading the diaries of Anaïs Nin. She would write about some memory and I would find myself drifting off in thought recalling one of my own memories. Her reveries guided me into my own. The more personal and exact you can get as a writer, it morphs over into a universal field where more people can relate to it. The more honest and genuine you are about your own personal self, the better you speak to a larger audience.
Jenni: Exactly. Also, using the first person format was something that felt intentional and significant. Just looking at things like Gide's The Immmoralist or Thomas Mann's Death In Venice or The Sorrows of Young Werther—which is referenced in the film—those are first person letters, epistolary novels—I love that word—where you're having the author speaking the first person through a character. It enables you to have that experience, that intimate vulnerability. It's also really hard to do it in a way that's artistically interesting and doesn't come off as cheap melodrama. [Laughs.]
MG: Within experimental film I imagine there are sub-genres. In reading some of the critical reception to Joy of Life some people were likening your work unto city symphonies. However, I got the sense you were patterning yourself after landscape studies?
Jenni: Both. It's interesting. I talk about the genre of landscape filmmaking, which is mainly James Benning. The thing about it is that, his work in particular is very challenging. A lot of his films are like, here's a three-minute static shot of an empty field and you're hearing the wind blow. And now here's another one. And here's another one for 90 minutes. It's an amazing experience and it's mesmerizing and all these different things but it's also very challenging. I felt I wanted to do something that—I like the experience of seeing a very static shot for a long duration and being very present and having a deep sense of being there; but, I wasn't interested in challenging the audience quite that much. I guess the other thing that I felt was going on for me in shooting and wanting to make a landscape film is more in line with a symphony of the city, which is this underlying feeling of being a documentarian and wanting to capture what the city looks like before it changes or as it's changing. Even though ostensibly the first part is this butch narrative, it is also simultaneously a documentary about the face of San Francisco. I actually just finished making a shot list, an edited shot list, or I should say an annotated shot list indicating all of the shots that are not there anymore or locations that have changed or been torn down. Like Anna's Danish Cookies at 18th and Guerrero is gone now.
MG: You could go wiggy doing that! I do that too since I've been here since '75. The constant malleability of the storefronts that becomes a kind of—it's like changing weather or something—and one's biography leans right into it. I do understand exactly what you're talking about. It's an ephemerality of surface that also implies an ephemerality of psyche. When you're out filming, my understanding is you have a cinematographer who's actually doing the camera work?
Jenni: Most of Joy of Life was shot by my friend Sophie Constantino and my working method—if you will—is to make lists of shots that I want and then we would go out, in the mornings mainly, very early in the morning and drive around and try to accomplish my shot list. Mostly, I had very specific compositions in mind. I'd say, I want it straight on with that thing up in the corner and the street right there.
MG: Would you actually look through the camera to secure the shot?
Jenni: Yeah, so I can say that's exactly what I want. But other times Sophie would say, well, how about, what if, I don't know if that'll look right, how about we put the camera here, or what if we do this? She's a very accomplished cinematographer and it's more than just pushing a button. The film looks amazing if I do say so.
MG: Absolutely. The film looks beautiful. Which leads me to ask, you actually shot on 16mm. Was there a reason why you didn't go the popular route of filming digital?
Jenni: Yeah, I mean just the visual quality of 16mm. The whole film has for me a melancholic and nostalgic feel, and a very analog feel in this digital age, in all kinds of ways. My working method [was] this zen-like intent that I had with this whole thing of slowing down and paying attention to what's going on in the world. So shooting on 16mm was … there was something very organic about that.
MG: What you were saying a little bit earlier about the static long shots, I've been challenged a lot through the films of Tsai Ming-Liang who frequently uses long shots, or even Amos Gitaï has these very long shots, where both are conscious of what you're saying: they want an audience member to be patient enough to allow a certain understanding to come through the images. I like that you say zen-like because it is a feeling of rapt meditative attention. You've been involved in queer cinema in many different ways over the years beginning originally as the founding director of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, then shifting on to Planet Out and Popcorn Q, and now you're involved in Wolfe Video, which is a distribution line. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Jenni: Just to clarify, I was the founder of the Minneapolis Gay and Lesbian Film Festival back in 1985-86, which actually sadly bit the dust last year for lack of sponsorship money after 18 years, which is a pretty sad comment on gay festivals today. Then I was one of the co-founders of PlanetOut.com and Popcorn Q and then I was also the co-director of Frameline for a couple of years with Mark Finch before I was with PlanetOut. Now I'm with Wolfe Video, I'm director of e-commerce and consumer marketing, which basically means I help them sell dvds. Wolfe is the largest exclusive LGBT film distributor in North America. We release at least one title a month on dvd as well as doing theatrical and festival bookings.
MG: I was looking at the site earlier today and it looks challenging and competitive. I commend you for getting your hands on it early to promote this queer market.
Jenni: It's a wonderful company to work for and continuing my championing of queer cinema. I continue to do other things during my copious spare time. I had a book that came out last year called the Queer Movie Poster Book and I'm on the advisory board of the Legacy Project, which is a partnership that's between Outfest L.A. and the U.C.L.A. film archives which is dedicated to LGBT film preservation and that's my other passion.
MG: Yes, I regret missing your workshop on archival preservation at the Persistent Vision Conference. I had thought it was being taped and then I found out afterwards it wasn't and I was so irritated.
Jenni: No archiving of the archiving panel, sadly.
MG: In terms of experimental filmmakers who are operating today, some have crossed over into mainstream somewhat—I consider you one of those—Apichatpong Weeraskathul's—Joe's—work, are you familiar with his work? Do you like what he does?
Jenni: Oh yeah. Tropical Malady is amazing. I have to applaud Strand Releasing particularly because they released Tropical Malady. They also are doing the dvd release of The Joy of Life. But they over the years have been very committed to experimental and innovative work and getting it out there. These films don't actually make loads of money at the box office.
MG: I didn't realize it was Strand that was actually releasing The Joy of Life. I interact with Bill McLeod over at Strand in helping them promote their titles. I thought it was Frameline Distribution who was distributing your film.
Jenni: Frameline is the non-theatrical educational distributor and they sublicense to the dvd . . . well, I guess Strand is helping them with their home video line and so all of the Frameline titles are being released on dvd through Strand Releasing. So Bill deals with all the theatrical and Strand has a different publicist in L.A., Steven Seller, who does all their dvd releases.
MG: I anticipate that the dvd release of The Joy of Life is going to reach a wide audience who has probably never quite seen a film like this before. Just as it wowed people at the festivals who are more film-literate and educated, I think you're going to reach a whole new audience. So I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I'm excited about the dvd release. I'm looking forward to having my own copy and hopefully at that time you'll sign it for me?
Jenni: [Chuckling.] Absolutely. I would love to. Yeah, it's exciting. People can put it on their Netflix queues. It's even on Blockbuster online, which was surprising to me.
MG: Oh, I meant to ask you one final thing. I understand you're working on a film called Eureka? What's Eureka about?
Jenni: It's similar in style to The Joy of Life. It's a landscape film with voiceover looking at the history of the street design of San Francisco, going back and looking at some of the decisions about how the urban planning was done in the city in the early days as well as, no doubt, I'll fit some adventures of the butch dyke in San Francisco in there.
MG: So when can we expect to see that?
Jenni: [Laughs.] Oh God. It will be a few years, let's just say. It took me almost 10 years to make The Joy of Life. It's difficult doing the fund raising and pulling it all together while having a fulltime job and a wife and two kids and various other interests.
MG: Well, I admire that you do all of that and thanks again, Jenni, for taking the time to talk with me.
Jenni: Thank you, Michael.
Cross-posted at Twitch.
08/07/06 UPDATE: Via Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily, Jenni has also been interviewed recently by Offscreen's Ryan Didick, who focuses on her curatorial artistry.