Jenni Olson and Desire in the Gay Golden State
In Jenni Olson’s short film Blue Diary (1998), a scant five minutes is enough to tell a small queer tragedy. With a wry monotone, the offscreen first-person narrator (Silas Howard) tells a story of a young dyke whose promising evening with the latest girl of her dreams fizzles in the light of a California morning.
The action of the essay film is summed up in a single, infinitely recyclable inter title: “Fuck, talk, sleep, fuck, breakfast.” And that’s all the narrator gets in the way of plot, unless one counts a few self-inflicted kicks in the rear.
“So much for my emotional boundaries,” the narrator says, explaining the glaring flaw in an otherwise perfect date: “She’s straight.” It’s self-deprecating, cynical, and heartbreaking all in one moment. In addition to being straight, the hookup is “celibate,” - the kind of celibacy achieved only through an outright denial of queerness. She rebuffs any further intimacy with a closed-mouth kiss. What was once a transcendent joy and hope for true recognition is now out of the narrator’s grasp forever; but that doesn’t stop the rhapsodizing.
The plot of Blue Diary, in a nutshell.
The titular diary entry is one of honest pining; the kind that romanticizes sadness just enough to be able to name the truth of a situation. Against the backdrop of the alleyways, motel signs, and side streets of San Francisco – that legendary utopia of queer love – straight girls still exist to send sensitive dyke hearts back to the loneliest memories of their youth. As sad is it may seem, this sort of masochism isn’t without merit. Olson’s experimental editorializing is there to help queer audiences, pushing them toward indulging in some of their most stereotypically ridiculed acts: yearning, wallowing, writing love letters to those who are always just out of reach.
The long-gone 17 Reasons sign opens Blue Diary’s world of literary loneliness, and Olson’s archiving of San Francisco.
In Olson’s moody, naturally-lit world of hybridized docufiction, where dykes speak by turns plainly and poetically about their fears, secrets, and bald desires, it is necessary to have something on the horizon - something to hope for. As a backdrop and reassuring best friend, San Francisco makes sure that even when that hope is centered around loss, there will be something else, something coming, to want. In these and coming years of the suppression of desire for previously ordinary things, Olson’s Blue Diary and The Joy of Life present an opportunity to celebrate, and make a goal of, uncareful desire.
At the writing of this essay, it has now been one year since I’ve set foot in San Francisco. It’s been much longer since I mostly let go of the dream of one day moving to the city, but Olson’s films encourage the resuscitation of an unconsummated, and largely unrealistic, love.
I grew up as a second generation Californian itching to flee suburbia. Forty five minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Novato, California is a landlocked, deeply paralyzing place for a young queer kid. The most exhilarating activity preteens can attempt is the energy drink-fueled shopping cart race in the parking lot of the combination KFC/Pizza Hut. The town itself is probably best known for being interchangeably mistaken as Nevada, or acknowledged as one of the least upscale northernmost additions to Marin County.
Novato (and all of Marin County) is also extremely racially and economically segregated, generally conservative, and, growing up, was saturated with the tacit ideology that if you wanted to meet a homosexual, you had to retreat south, toward San Francisco. My family had to drive to the next town over in order to attend synagogue, which, in many books, amounted to the same ostracizing act.
My childhood impression of San Francisco was that it was indeed for the fairies, though that naive interpretation mostly centered around its environmental and fictional magic, with only a peripheral understanding of Castro Street. At that time, I assumed being an adult would mean that I could do anything that I wasn’t able to as a kid, and everything - fiction, film, my parents’ old photographs from their time living in San Francisco - told me I could find a real, autonomous life where the fog rolled in.
One of my favorite books was The Nine Lives of Chloe King, featuring a girl who survived a fall from Coit Tower only to discover she was a descendant of a mystical group of super powered Cat People. A favorite show was Charmed, that ‘90s fantasia of three immensely powerful sister witches battling demons from the haunted comfort of their familial Victorian manor on Prescott Street. I lost myself in those narratives, and the possibilities of belonging in a city that, to my mind, expanded into the realm of disbelief. San Francisco was the definitive escape and the desired landing; there was so much to do beyond the white heterosexual suburban imagination, and so many people to do it (and it) with.
Coit Tower as pictured in The Joy of Life, accompanied by the narrator describing a lover’s forearms and shy sureness.
Blue Diary, and especially The Joy of Life, bring back these potential wished-for futures, and add a realistic asterisk. Olson’s engagement with loneliness and bureaucratic harm flesh out her entrancing landscape cinematography, bolstering a unique queer interiority to a visually and historically gay icon. The experimental mix of monologue and landscape allow a personal entrance - not just an absorption or observation of events as an outsider. For someone who has always looked at the city with an idealized, aspirational queerness, but could never truthfully call it home, this placement is entirely unique, encouraging both connection and interrogation.
Olson is not the first writer or filmmaker to explicitly link San Francisco with gay identity, by a long shot. Made the heterosexual public’s centerpiece of “Homosexuality in America,” by Life Magazine as early as the 1960s, one could almost allege that there will never be enough gay art about the city. Harvey Milk’s election and Armistead Maupin’s first publication of Tales of the City occurring in the same year is just one of the many oh, this is too gay to be true coincidences stamped across its hills.
Some of the non-fiction filmic dives into the queemess of San Francisco include Milk’s historic election and assassination in Robert Epstein’s The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the lesser known sibling to the Stonewall Riots in Susan Stryker’s Screaming Queens: The Riot At Compton’s Cafeteria, and the glorious world of leatherdykes in Michelle Handelman’s Bloodsisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism. All are worthy documentations of a flourishing political, communal center of queerness, but none evoke the same desperate, lonesome love of being a queer individual in the topography of San Francisco as any one of Olson’s California confidentials.
Initially, The Joy of Life expands upon Blue Diary’s pining, self-effacing butch dyke, this time voiced by Harry Dodge (you can find Howard and Dodge together in the one-of-a-kind trans San Francisco adventure By Hook or By Crook). Where the short is a poem, the feature is a contemplative manifesto on yearning, intimacy, and loss, as well as a surprising, historically and personally motivated campaign for suicide prevention.
After a few introductory frames recognizing the native Ohlone people who inhabited and cared for San Francisco before it ever carried that name, and the subsequent religious colonization and Gold Rush that transformed the coast, the narrator once again aches after a lover (Olson more explicitly connects the themes of lost love and the Californian history of violence in her road trip essay film The Royal Road). For The Joy of Life, there’s more than a mere interstitial mention of a fumble, and more than one woman to break a heart. The narrator describes trysts with Casey, Kelly, Stephanie, and Diane - real and imagined, and sometimes delightfully filthy before they’re devastating.
The narrator longs to be fucked, even as her bedfellow longs to fuck her ex.
Casey is the most frequently spoken-of sexual partner. Her forearms, mouth, eyes, bordering butchness, and intelligence inflate the narrator’s heart and stoke a need for intimacy that’s simultaneously longed for and feared - but she’s vocally wistful for her ex. Her emotional separation from the narrator reveals an insecure musing on butchness, and the vulnerability of wanting to be fucked; but even as the narrator acknowledges discomfort in asking for sex, she continues to try.
Tepid dates and voracious lusts are spread across sunsets, golden hours, foggy overcasts, and shadowed underpasses. As San Francisco gleams and darkens, the narrator frets over kisses, internalized misogyny, and the existence of tits (her own). She fantasizes about her best friend’s dominant girlfriend, falls in nostalgic love with a boyish ex-girlfriend, and plays the role of an experiment for a young, closeted explorer. In one of the more unique lesbian interactions onscreen, the narrator stops outside The Lexington Club and listens to a butch hustler and houseboy chat up seemingly every dyke who enters. Their approaches don’t mesh, with the narrator feeling repulsed by exaggerated stories of conquest and machismo - even if she is engaging in desire with a similar frequency and private eagerness.
With every difficulty, embarrassment, and sometimes spiraling reflexivity, the narrator somehow continues to want, and continues to connect, even if for only a short while. The second half of The Joy of Life, springboarded by a recording of City Lights Bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s recitation of “The Changing Light,” speaks of those whose own “joy of life” has passed: the 13,000 (at the time) recorded suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. This half is a non-fiction, historical and analytical narration, detailing the construction of the bridge, specific lives lost, and the continued refusal of city government to erect effective barriers for want of money, or aesthetic, or pure pigheaded red tape. In post script, the film is dedicated to one of these lives - Olson’s friend and queer film worker extraordinaire, Mark Finch.
The sun setting on the Golden Gate Bridge employee parking lot, fenced in by a rejected suicide barrier prototype.
Many of the shots remain similarly composed from the first to the second half, though they now focus on the bridge from all angles. Whether this paints the city in an entirely different light is up for interpretation. The bridge as final destination could cast a literal shadow on the freewheeling queerness of the city, but to my mind, the preceding sadness that pervades the fictional travails of a lonely dyke creates a fluid stylistic balance. The fictional narrator fights depression and dysphoria for the chance at intimacy, while Olson’s PSA narrator lays bare one way to ensure more San Franciscans and queers among them live to fight and want another day.
Another angle of the bridge - the setting of Kim Novak’s infamous dive into the Bay in Vertigo, and a favorite spot of Olson’s friend Mark Finch.
In a new interview with The Criterion Channel, Olson relates that her films have a sort of “meditative” quality - that they’re meant to connect a viewer with their own feelings, and all the better if that viewer happens to be a butch dyke who can understand the specificity of her partly fictional, partly autobiographical narrators. This representation isn’t strictly about seeing oneself on screen (a phrase much aspirationally representational media has earmarked), but about finding media that resonates below the surface.
When I watch San Francisco through the eyes of Olson’s sensitive protagonists, my own meditation is clearly affected by my historic longing for a queer adult life in the city, and my current desperation to be back in Northern California. I don’t think this is unique to my viewing, though - what and who we want may be entirely different from viewer to viewer, but the wanting itself is not.
Some days I berate myself for even the desire to do anything that’s been proven inadvisable during this needlessly prolonged pandemic, including seeing my friends, my family, getting on a plane to hug my mom, or going to the gay cowboy bar where I used to strip and eat strangers’ money out of their mouths. More often than not, I swallow my rising sadness by reminding myself of the “can’t”s, only to be buried under its weight in unguarded moments - some days, I’m stricken with panic over the want to go to the grocery store down the block. But Olson’s films, particularly The Joy of Life’s ending monologue, provide an alternate instruction.
Over a twinkling nightscape, the narrator pivots back to the personal rather than the strictly historical, tidily laying out the reason for all this. Falling in lust, falling in love, and wanting so intensely, so “wilfully, intentionally, recklessly,” is a promised adrenaline rush that secretly sustains as much as it titillates. In the same vein of that introduction to Sondheim’s star-making “Being Alive,” the secret is to want something, to return to the feeling of hopefulness and certainty in a future, not just a nostalgic sense of past fulfillment. There is something to hold out for, and what do we have if not hope, and want, for that something coming, something good, something gay.
“In the moment of desiring and being desired, you actually know that you’re OK.”
The city is not my fantasy anymore, but the possibility of seeing my family, of driving the bridge again, and letting that desire for human connection strengthen, is an immensely powerful incentive to engage with my real feelings. In Blue Diary and The Joy of Life, as many times as the narrators bury themselves in insecurity, desire is ultimately the spark of true feeling that they can hitch their wagons to, even in the loneliest of times.