Jenni Olson’s debut feature film The Joy of Life was released in 2005. Stunningly devoid of people, this poetic meditation on longing, landscape, cinema, and suicide is structured in three parts: Bay Area landscapes; a poetic interlude by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“in that vale of light the city drifts, anchorless, upon the ocean”); and a critique of the Golden Gate Bridge District’s suicide policy.
The film takes its name from an Omar Cigarettes advertising mural, painted on a red brick building on Mason Street in Chinatown. That scene fascinates me because I know I’m looking at structures, embodied labor forms, less than 100 years old at the time of filming. The earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906 with a 7.9 magnitude ignited a fire that burned 500 city blocks over three days. Arnold Genthe’s photographs of the earthquake’s aftermath in Chinatown show a razed city. Olson directs our attention to pulsing light, the flickering granularity of cinema’s material delights, and the unscripted movements of a compressed hillside city marked by earthslips and shapeshifting conditions of light.
Light—barrels and barrels of Pacific shine collected by 16mm grain—is Olson’s principal study. Olson’s cinematic standard (stationary camera, long takes, voice-over narration) lulls the viewer into a comfortable absorption of the script while simultaneously showing magnificent littoral tours of in-between spaces: bridges, alleys, lust. Olson’s observational takes are paired with the diaristic banter of queer attraction among women. Complicated and unrequited moments of desire are contemplated in urban marginal spaces away from city centers, far from bustling visual invasions of compulsive heterosexuality.
It’s precisely in these discrete public arteries marked by a very queer wandering that Olson quietly subverts the gender, purpose, and performance of historical acts of flaneurism. Framing for narrative pleasure, and avoiding the clutter of signifiers, Olson’s minimalist filmmaking enlivens a sensual stroll through urban spaces that, historically, queer people have used to meet, work, fuck, survive. Olson has femmes and fatality in one film without using images of either. Instead of prescriptive imagery, The Joy of Life is a mesmerizing series of observational habits that reveal the film’s tender tendency: “In the moment of desiring and being desired you actually know that you’re okay.”
The Joy of Life is available to stream on Fandor , iTunes, and Vimeo, and on disc or to stream on Amazon. Follow The Joy of Life on the film’s website, and Jenni Olson on Blogspot, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and YouTube.