This month sees the work of queer experiential filmmaker Jenni Olson celebrated on the Criterion Channel, with a five film retrospective, plus a new insightful interview. Included in the collection are Olson’s two features, The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015), which both world premiered at Sundance. These, along with her 1998 short Blue Diary, are 16mm shot contemplative essay films with a series of long static shots depicting calm Californian cityscapes. Generally devoid of traffic and people, the deceptively simple visuals have a mesmeric quality that invites deep introspection while allowing the viewer to focus their attention on the self-deprecating, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, voiceover that drifts from the intimate, and sexually explicit, to the philosophical and intellectual, with ruminations on lesbian butch identity.
Olson’s earlier works are voiced by Silas Howard (Blue Diary) and Harry Dodge (The Joy of Life), whereas with the more recent The Royal Road it’s the filmmaker’s own voice that we hear, giving it an added personal, though not necessarily autobiographical, dimension. In The Royal Road the personal—fixating on a relationship with an unavailable woman—morphs into reflections upon, among other things, nostalgia, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the narrator offers us a detailed and enlightening take on the Spanish colonial history of California and the 1840s Mexican American War. While The Joy of Life’s butch dyke diarist moves from endearingly, vulnerably oversharing as she pines over women to a reflection on imitative suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge, made all the more potent and affecting as Olson mentions that it was where her friend and colleague, a leading figure in LGBTQ film, Mark Finch, took his own life twenty five years ago. Also included in this Criterion Channel presentation is the haunting and stirring 575 Castro St., an ‘interior landscape’ short film shot on the set of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, a recreation of the iconic gay activist’s camera store at that exact location in San Francisco. Harvey Milk’s tape recorded message—made in the event that he was assassinated—plays on the soundtrack. It was nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009.
For over three decades Olson has been an integral part of queer cinema culture in the United States. As well as being an acclaimed and award-winning filmmaker in her own right, she was co-director of the world’s longest running LGBTQ film festival, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, now Frameline. She went on to be director of marketing at Wolfe Video, and co-founded the pioneering online platform PlanetOut.com, and created Butch.org. She’s written about film for Filmmaker Magazine, The Advocate, The San Francisco Bay Guardian and NewNowNext, and her latest book, The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, will be published next year. As an archivist she has built a collection of LGBTQ+ marketing materials, 35mm trailer and film prints, rescuing many from obscurity; a collection that was recently acquired by the Harvard Film Archive. Olson serves as an archival producer and story consultant on the four part queer history docu-series Equal, currently playing as part of NewFest, and premiering on HBO Max on October 22nd. She is also co-director of The Bressan Project, which is devoted to digitally restoring and rereleasing the work of pioneering Buddies filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., including his gay adult features Forbidden Letters and Passing Strangers starring Robert Adams.
With Films By Jenni Olson now available on the Criterion Channel, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Jenni Olson about what influences her approach to essayist filmmaking, the importance of creating butch dyke representation, how she perceives the narrator character in her films, and why she admires Marlon Riggs’ 1989 film Tongues Untied.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You’ve said that Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet was a way for you ‘to come out by connecting with queer cinema.’ What impact did reading that book have on you in terms of discovering yourself and also igniting your interest in queer cinema?
Jenni Olson: “I read Vito Russo’s book when I was at the University of Minnesota in 1986. I was a film studies major at the time, and I was not yet out, and reading that book was the thing that really enabled me to come out. I vividly remember reading it and wanting to see every single film that Vito wrote about. That prompted me to curate a lesbian and gay film series on campus, which was called Lavender Images. I did all the research and found the 16mm prints and connected with the distributors, and it was this hugely popular film series. So it was me coming out to myself and coming into the LGBT community in Minneapolis, and it was the beginning of my career as a curator, firstly around that series and then the Minneapolis/St. Paul LGBT Film Festival for many years. A couple of years later I applied for the co-director position at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and got that job. So it really was the beginning of me following my heart and entering into this whole world of LGBT film. At the same time I became a queer film critic, and started writing reviews for the local gay paper. And then I guess it wasn’t until a few years later that I decided to actually make films. It was also at that time, and again related to The Celluloid Closet, that I started collecting LGBT film, like actual film prints, especially 35mm movie trailers, which was also the beginning of another strand of my career. I wear many hats, but they all revolve around queer film and it all started with The Celluloid Closet. Eventually I met and got to be friends with Vito Russo and he was very much one of my mentors.”
You mentioned collecting 35mm trailers, and then you went on to make the queer trailer compilation features, Homo Promo and Neo Homo Promo. What kind of insight do you think trailers can give us into queer film history and the marketing of queer film?
“Well, it’s interesting because they are kind of an art form in themselves and a sociological phenomenon in themselves, in that they tell us something about what “straight” film marketers thought was the best way to sell gay movies. Which in certain ways isn’t so much about gay people, but it’s about how straight people think of gay people. But they also tell us something, as the films themselves do, about what it was like to be LGBT at any given moment in time in society. The films and the marketing materials reflect the societal attitudes of the time.”
“In addition to collecting trailers, I started collecting movie posters, and press books, and all the materials around the print marketing of LGBT films. Mainly you see a lot of very sensational marketing that is clearly meant to appeal to straight audiences in that kind of lurid or trashy way, portraying being queer or trans as this kind of freakish thing. It isn’t really until the 90s that you get more independent LGBT film with more respectful representation. But in terms of the trailers, I collected hundreds and hundreds of them, and I would watch them to find the most interesting ones that are not just interesting films, but interesting trailers. Trailers are an art form in themselves.”
One of the 35mm film prints you discovered and rescued was Queens at Heart wasn’t it? I noticed that we get to see some of that wonderful film in the new HBO Max docu-series Equal.
“Yeah, I’m so excited for Equal to come out. I was a story consultant and archival producer on the series, which of course meant that I pointed them to a lot of my own archival footage, in addition to archival materials from all over the country. Queens at Heart is one of the things I’m most proud of as an archivist and historian to have rescued from obscurity. It’s a 1967 interview with four trans women in New York City. It was made as this exploitation piece, it actually played as a short in front of a feature called She-Man from 1967, which is what it sounds like, very lurid and weird, and not the kind of respectful portrayal we would like. But it’s amazing that the women in Queens at Heart come across with just this incredible dignity, and it’s so poignant to see them and their courage with what they’re dealing with two years before Stonewall. It was a film that had never been written about in any of the existing queer film literature. The various folks who had previously researched LGBT film history like Vito Russo and Richard Dyer never wrote about it. So it was a complete discovery, and I’ve seen it probably 50 times by now and I’m still amazed at how powerful it is to see these people whose shoulders we stand on.”
I know you grew up watching a lot of classic Hollywood movies, and you reference classic Hollywood figures and movies in your own films, but your filmmaking style is quite different to what we expect from a traditional Hollywood movie and pretty experimental. Who were the filmmakers who directly influenced your approach to filmmaking; its structure and style?
“As a filmmaker I’m very influenced by any number of particularly queer experimental filmmakers. William E. Jones made a film called Massillon, which was about growing up gay in Massillon, Ohio. I would say that his filmmaking and that film are the greatest influence on my work. Interestingly, he was very influenced by Chantal Akerman, and so I was influenced by her through him. Su Friedrich, Sadie Benning, and Marlon Riggs influenced me too. All filmmakers who decided to make unconventional work and show us that there are all kinds of different ways to tell stories in moving image form that are not just conventional narratives or conventional documentaries, or even conventionally experimental. I was fortunate that as a curator I have seen thousands of shorts, documentaries, and features. I always feel like that was my film school. I never actually went to film school, I never learned how to make films, I learned how to watch them.”
In terms of the writing and the visuals, is it the writing element that always comes first?
“It’s very simultaneous. I know what I want visually in a very general way. I want these very contemplative, somewhat mundane, urban landscapes that have certain visual qualities to them. I like depth of field. I like empty alleys. I like certain kinds of old buildings, and I know that those static long takes will serve as this baseline visual backdrop for the voiceover. I’m usually out simultaneously shooting that stuff and writing. Before I go into the voiceover studio to lay down the voiceover I do write a complete script that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and some kind of story arc, if you will, although they’re very minimalist story arcs. It’s challenging to make a feature length work where essentially nothing happens. The writing is a very meticulous process. I tend to write pages and pages and pages, and then chuck out pages and pages! I try to condense it down to the most essential meanings and then I’ll record the voiceover, and then start putting down the picture on top of the voiceover and see how it works. And it’s amazing how, some shots will be this kind of perfect match for a voiceover, and other shots we’ll put it down and be like, ‘It doesn’t doesn’t really do anything.’ It’s an amazing process to be in the editing room putting it all together.”
There are certain times during your features when the images will match quite closely with what you’re talking about. In The Joy of Life with the Golden Gate bridge section of the film for instance we get to see quite a bit of the bridge, and with The Royal Road sometimes again we see directly what the voiceover is referring to. It’s impactful and interesting because we’ve spent a lot of the time not expecting related images, so we’re in a different zone as we’re watching the films.”
“Yes, that’s another piece of it that I work with, and it’s working on all these different levels. We’re accustomed to watching films where we’ll have the opening shot, and it’s an establishing shot, and there’s a building and we have this whole thing that happens in our heads that we don’t even think about, where we go, ‘Oh, that’s where the character lives’, or, ‘The voiceover is talking about a person, so that person must live in that building.’ Or something’s being said, and there’s a sense that this person or character is actually physically in this place as they’re talking. So what I am mainly doing is thwarting all of that, and I think the viewer immediately picks up on it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, this is a different set of rules here.’ You do have a sense that whoever this person is who’s talking to us must live in this city and is in a way wandering around in the city. I mean, that’s not explicit, but we have a sense that there’s this person, and there are no other people around, it’s completely lonely and empty, and melancholy and sad, and yet, whatever, here we are. And then there are these moments every once in a while where suddenly the visuals do match up in some way. When you’re working on such a minimalist palette even the smallest things will have a big effect. In the case of the bridge I did decide, ‘Okay, now we’re going to talk about the bridge and here we’re going to see a bunch of shots of the bridge.’ So I am actually talking about the bridge and we’re seeing the bridge in a much more direct way, and it has this whole different quality to it. In The Royal Road, I’m talking about Junipero Serra and showing you the statues. I love how that works. On the one hand, we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a statue of Junipero Serra’, but it’s also kind of funny because it’s a statue! There are unique pleasures to be had from shifting those things, where suddenly we’re seeing something that has a direct relationship to what’s being spoken about.”
Something that struck me watching your work again right now, after the last six months or so we’ve all experienced living in cities in an uncannily quiet state, is that our streets have resembled what we see in your films. You show us a side to San Francisco for instance that we don’t usually see; devoid of people, and cars and so still, we don’t hear honking of horns or other elements of the urban soundscape. The films put us in a contemplative state of mind which we’ve been able to walk around and experience outside recently. What’s the draw for you of showing us the city in that state? I guess it means a lot of early morning shoots too?!
“Yeah, I decided early on in my shooting that I wanted, as much as possible, to have the streets be relatively empty, and not really see any people. That does generally mean getting up very early in the morning, or else shooting in alleys and other places where there aren’t so many people around, which is harder and harder as the years go by. It connects to a sense of loneliness on the part of this character, this figure, or myself. There are various ways of looking at it, but I do think of myself as this persona, and there are moments where I feel a sense of, ‘Oh, actually this is me speaking’, but most of the time it feels more like it’s this character. So there is that sense of this figure wandering the landscape, and then it gives the viewer a relationship to themselves. I think that is to me the most interesting thing about the way that my films work. On the one hand you’re sitting there listening to this person blabbing away, but what happens, because it’s written in a first person diary format, and because the images that you’re seeing are of empty landscapes, you project yourself more easily into all of the things that you identify with in what’s being said. At least ideally. If it works, I mean. I think there there are plenty of people for whom it doesn’t work and they’re just bored, or think that it’s too earnest or something. It definitely does have an almost melodramatic quality to it. I’m being very vulnerable, but very sincere in a way that can seem almost embarrassing or too much, but is very intentional. The point is to connect to you as a viewer, it gives you permission to be vulnerable and to connect with your own vulnerable feelings, and earnest, sincere feelings. The landscape piece of it has a lot to do with that. It is really interesting that now the world is like that, and obviously this particular version of that loneliness is very scary, which is different. I think there’s also a timeless quality which is something that I’m very intentionally trying to achieve. With the landscapes that we’re seeing we have a sense that they might have looked like this 50 years ago, so they’re timeless, and in that also very timely.”
I love how sexually explicit some moments in the films like Blue Diary and The Joy of Life are, even though of course we don’t see anything graphic on screen. Nevertheless there’s a real sense of intimacy that’s established and a vulnerability as you said. I believe that at one point The Joy of Life, which is in some ways is a film about sex and death, was originally going to be called Fuck Diary. Could you talk about that sexually explicit aspect of your work and also your exploration of butch lesbian identity?
“I love that, particularly with The Joy of Life, watching it now it still feels very provocative. And it’s kind of an amazing achievement to be able to make a sexy 16mm urban landscape film and to have it be able to elicit such a strong response from people. It’s true that the original script was called Fuck Diary. In so many ways my films are about failure and rejection, and pining over unavailable women. In Blue Diary, one sexy part of that is the ‘Fuck – talk – sleep – fuck – breakfast’ line. Trying to tell a story that incorporates sex and sexuality in a way that is creative was something that I wanted to do, and also specifically to try to convey things from a butch perspective and to tell a story that addresses butch identity or butch experience, or things that other butch dykes could connect to and identify with. Which goes back to the beginning, to The Celluloid Closet. What Vito wrote about was the importance of seeing ourselves on screen, and how, especially historically, people grew up feeling very alone. So to me it was absolutely transformative to see myself on screen and to feel less alone and to feel the joy of that, in seeing those endless stories and images. But images of butch identified folks or gender non-conforming folks are few and far between, so it’s always been important to me that my films speak from that perspective and that they hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone.”
Another one of your short films that’s available on the Criterion Channel which I found very moving is 575 Castro Street. How did the idea of shooting on Gus Van Sant’s Milk set, the recreation of Harvey’s camera store on the exact location where he ran it, come about?
“It was actually commissioned for the website for Milk when it was going to be released theatrically. They said, ‘We want you to make something, and it can be whatever you want to do.’ I had actually been involved in digitising that original tape years before, so I was familiar with the recording that Harvey Milk made to be played in the event that he was assassinated. When they asked me to make something I had a few different ideas and eventually decided to make what’s basically an interior landscape film on that set. The extra powerful thing about it is that Harvey made that recording in that very room, in that actual physical space, because as you say they recreated it at the actual address where his camera store was at 575 Castro Street. There’s a point on the tape where he says, ‘someplace in the file cabinet in the back’, and he makes reference to the things that Briggs said in relation to the Briggs Initiative. So you just have a sense of him sitting there at his desk in that room making that recording which is just incredible. There are chunks of that recording, kind of verbatim, included in Dustin Lance Black’s script for Milk. I also love that 575 Castro St. is a documentation of a set of a film that’s an important LGBT film.”
I imagine this might be more challenging for you than for most people because you’ve seen so many queer films, but do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ film, or TV series, book, play, musical, piece of music, artwork, or a person; something or someone that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years? Or it could be something current you’d like to highlight.
“A film that I think everyone should see, which also just launched on the Criterion Channel, is Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs. He was an African American gay filmmaker who died of AIDS in 1994. Marlon was just an amazing filmmaker, and Tongues Untied is a masterpiece.”
By James Kleinmann
The Films by Jenni Olson collection is playing now on the Criterion Channel and includes an interview with Olson, plus her two feature films The Joy of Life and The Road, and three shorts: Blue Diary, 575 Castro St., and In nomine Patris which was commissioned for the 2019 30th Anniversary shorts omnibus, 30/30 VISION: 3 Decades of Strand Releasing.