What is it about the Bay Area that brings out the "doomed dreamer" in writers and artists?
That elusively unanswerable critical question springs to mind when one considers the work of filmmaker Jenni Olson. In her contemplative documentaries The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015), both shot in 16mm, Olson follows in the tradition of all the artists who were ever carried away by the light, the topography, the fog, the faces, the voices and the melancholy mystique of the Bay. We recognize the type—those who rhapsodize with a straight face about getting lost on Mt. Tam in the rain, or about the way the four o'clock sun hits that grove of trees where they first met someone who changed their life, if only for a day.
Olson's films don't just celebrate San Francisco and its environs, they succumb to their spell. Cue Bret Harte, Alfred Hitchcock, Diane di Prima, Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, Jerry Garcia, Ina Coolbrith (poetic admirer of "the cool gray city of love"), Jack London, Gary Kamiya and Jack Kerouac. Or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who contributes a poem to The Joy of Life, one of the five titles collected in "Films by Jenni Olson," now on the Criterion Channel.
When The Joy of Life debuted at the 2005 Frameline film festival, it caused the audience to rethink the definition of "documentary." The film is laid out over a tapestry of quiet, almost ghostly, views of overlooked corners of the city—would-be establishing shots for a downbeat movie about everybody's favorite downbeat location. Sophia Constantinou's cinematography and Marc Henrich's editing lulled viewers into a languorous state.
In the first half, performance artist Harriet "Harry" Dodge indulges in a voiceover confession (it's always Olson's writing)—in love with a certain woman, Olson/Dodge can never quite consummate those feelings. The second half is a meditation on the Golden Gate Bridge and its notoriety as the world's No. 1 suicide landmark. Sandwiched in between is the short, dark-screen reading by Ferlinghetti. Every few minutes, Dodge pauses the narration and lets the slow montage of San Francisco vistas take over, in silent, rhythmic expansiveness. The message is timeless: Falling in love is risky yet imperative. "In the moment of desiring and being desired, you actually know you're okay.”
If anything, 2015's The Royal Road is even more the lovelorn diary entry. Using a similar rhythmic montage of landscapes, Olson traces the path from her "humble apartment" in the Mission to her inamorata's "sunny bungalow" in Los Angeles, with the Spanish "Camino Real" as her lodestone. As with the creative spirits of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Kerouac and Frank Capra in the earlier film, our heroine's companions are Old Hollywood's most evocative sagas of obsessive devotion—Vertigo, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and The Children's Hour. Olson's insistent romanticism delineates the difference between San Francisco and Los Angeles: "This city [S.F.] was built on people like me, pilgrims trying to find themselves in a place where crazy chosen paths are a virtue, and self-discovery is a civic value." Also included in Criterion's retrospective are three early Olson shorts: Blue Diary, 575 Castro St. (a tribute to Harvey Milk) and In nomine Patris.
Longtime San Francisco resident Olson, who hails from the suburbs of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and now lives in South Berkeley, is working on a memoir as well as the script of a new film, to be titled The Quiet World. Audiences enchanted by her oeuvre can discover more about her on the Criterion Collection website, where "Jenni Olson's Top 10" takes us on a guided tour of her favorite movies. Says the director in a phone conversation: "I'm trying to help people slow down and be in the moment, to be here now."
"Films by Jenni Olson" streams on the Criterion Channel.