Many months ago, when quarantine was in its first weeks, when the weight of our current moment hadn’t quite set in due to hope or denial or both, I tweeted: My only feelings now are horny longing and dread-filled grief. To be fair, I’m not exactly a stranger to either feeling. To be fair, lesbians, in general, are not exactly strangers to either feeling. Stereotypically speaking, we love to pine and have a lot of trauma, and I’m nothing if not my own transfeminine version of a stereotype.
It was difficult to ignore the pandemic when experiencing art back in March — it feels even harder now. Sometimes it’s as simple as cringing when two characters shake hands, but sometimes it’s deeper — some work just seems to click with our current world. When Jenni Olson made her films now streaming on The Criterion Channel, she wasn’t thinking about pandemics or quarantines or anything else this year has wrought, and yet there has never been a better time to revisit these five movies.
Jenni and I have a lot in common, something we realized when I interviewed her about Mädchen in Uniform earlier this year. We’re both gay film nerds with complicated gender feelings and a deep yearning to better understand ourselves, others, history, and the world. Watching her films, I learned the comparisons went even deeper. Just like Jenni can make a film about Frank Capra, San Francisco, and suicide and have it end up being about herself (or is it the other way around?) this review of Jenni’s films is inevitably going to be about me (or is it the other way around?).
Jenni Olson’s films on Criterion are three shorts — Blue Diary (1998), 575 Castro St. (2009), In nominee Patris (2019) — and two features — The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015). All five films are cinematic poems grounded in place and floating with nostalgia. We hear narration from Jenni or from actors Silas Howard and Harry Dodge or from a recording of Harvey Milk as we look at static shots, most frequently of San Francisco. There’s a clear queer lineage from Chantal Akerman and like her work Jenni’s films lull you into their form and bury themselves inside you for days to come.
While each of these films is special in their own way, The Joy of Life affected me deepest. It’s the one where I felt most like Jenni was reaching fifteen years into the future and slapping me across the face in a good way. It’s just so sad and horny! The first half of the film narrator Harry Dodge describes several love affairs over shots of San Francisco. It has lines like, “She has the sexiest forearms. Thick wrists. Dark hair. Big hands. She’s sexy in a slightly butch way. Strong. But she feels like a girl in my arms.” It has lines like, “I always feel like there’s something I want to say to her like you’re beautiful or I love you or why do you seem so far away.” It has lines like, “What I want most in the world is for people to like me.”
I spent the whole film frantically writing down lines like these as if they were my own thoughts I was scribbling into a journal, desperate to get them down before they fluttered out of my brain. Jenni is writing about being gay and Jenni is writing about being depressed and Jenni is writing about being both of these things as someone gender nonconforming. There are sections about straight-identified girls just experimenting. There are sections about dysphoria. “She tells me I make her feel confused,” Harry says towards the end of one disappointment.
Jenni identifies as a gender nonconforming butch dyke (if she has to pick something) and watching this film I was reminded how deeply our cinema has been shaped by the over-representation of cis femme lesbians. The perspective Jenni is offering is one I’ve only seen a few times and while my experience as a trans femme would presumably be the opposite that is not the case at all. It’s not about AMAB or AFAB or trans or cis or any of these other words. It’s about navigating lesbianism outside the binary. The longing for validation, the longing for a sense of self, it all just hits so hard.
Then the film shifts. Harry starts talking about Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe and its near-suicide ending leading into a history of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge. Both this film and The Royal Road draw parallels between the small dramas of life and the big dramas of our world. This is why they feel made for now. They are the cinematic equivalent of swiping through pandemic Tinder, hopping over to Twitter to read about pandemic tragedy, and then returning to Tinder once more.
They also remind us what we now miss. To be alone is to be in a relationship with your location. This is what I thought about as Harry describes all these failed romances over shots of San Francisco. Every place becomes a person, the city itself becomes your partner. We don’t have that right now. So much is virtual and a computer screen doesn’t have the same echoes as a tangible location. Sometimes the best part of a date is walking home or riding the bus, lost in melancholy thought, or hopeful possibility.
While The Joy of Life has a desire for recent past, The Royal Road makes nostalgia itself its subject. But as it engages with the violent history of California, it suggests that nostalgia doesn’t have to be the thoughtless embrace of the past. Nostalgia can encompass looking back, grappling with the reality, and moving forward. We can study our history — as a community, as a country — and look to the future with a new perspective.
Jenni’s films may be consumed with longing, but it’s not simply a longing for people — it’s a longing for purpose. The joy is then found in the searching. The meaning is found in the desire for meaning. The longing isn’t something to be satisfied, but to be cultivated. Be present. Be aware. Want and want and want and want.
One more quote from Jenni: “There are times when you notice things, when you’re acutely aware of the world around you. Like after someone dies. Or sometimes coming out of a movie.”