The Joy of Life
Director: Jenni Olson. Essay film and landscape documentary about love, movies, and suicide in San Francisco. Voiceovers by Harriet "Harry" Dodge and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Screenplay: Jenni Olson.

Photo © 2005 Frameline/Strand Releasing
"Whatever be my fate hereafter, I can never say that I have not tasted joy—the purest joy of life." –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

Jenni Olson's The Joy of Life could easily be taken for one of those films like Todd Solondz's Happiness that are rather glibly named for precisely that which they lack or avoid. The "joy of life" does not percolate in any perfectly obvious way beneath Olson's 65-minute montage of depopulated San Francisco cityscapes, vocally overlaid with the recent sexual history of a Bay Area butch who proceeds, in the middle third of the film, to offer a casual production history of Frank Capra's Meet John Doe and then to end the film with a long excursis about suicide jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge. The images themselves, strikingly framed and lovingly rendered in 16mm footage that "pops" more than a lot of documentarty footage shot in that format, don't go out of their way to aestheticize decrepitude, and yet the quotidian wear we observe on the city's surfaces and the absence of crowds or even of passersby eventually remind us of how possible it is to be alone, or at least to feel alone, self-abstracted, in a metropolitan area of 7 million people.

But if The Joy of Life avoids exuberance, the movie is hardly so facile as to deliver a dirge under the facetious banner of a promised celebration. As the narrator (By Hook or by Crook writer-director-star Harriet "Harry" Dodge) deadpans her erotic preferences and nurses a pseudo-insult from her latest girlfriend and confesses her outrageous flirtations with her best friend's steady, it's clear that for Olson, "joy" does not equate to "ebullience" but to complexity. Like a lot of contemporary queer theorists (think of Ann Cvetcovich in An Archive of Feelings), Olson valorizes affect as complexity, and the monologue she has written for Dodge to read is engaging enough despite a deliberate vocal flatness to evoke some rarely privileged facets of desire: the ambivalences of coupledom as well as those of solitude, the occasional virtues of phone conversation over physically shared experience, the odd smear of nervous vanity that comes with naming what one finds attractive in oneself. Occasionally the images offer direct referents or counterpoints to the words on the soundtrack, but much more often, at least for a while, they play out a second, tacit narrative of desultory movements through a humbly arresting city, solipsized as a kind of mental geography that gives form and shape to experience and to memory.

As a filmmaker, Olson's eye is shrewd enough and the cutting by editor Marc Henrich is sufficiently judicious to train our gaze while sustaining our interest. The one major structural surprise is well placed: a swift cut to black at around the 27-minute mark, leading to an intermission of sorts while beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in a presumably expensive archive recording, extols the certain slant of light unique to the Bay Area, his poetry borne out by Olson's images—without, refreshingly, being too on the nose. When the "story" resumes, we continue to look with a Ferlinghetti eye, which is perhaps advantageous since the Meet John Doe material seems so gratuitous and evasive. I admired this evasiveness to an extent: The Joy of Life finds desire, if not life itself, not just in the explicitly sexual or romantic but also in the other residuums and flaneries of life. Still, what began as an anecdote about the narrator and a girlfriend seeing the film at the Castro theater becomes an extended production history about the incessantly overhauled script and the difficulty of finding an ending for a film about Big Endings: Gary Cooper's character was originally meant to kill himself in the last sequence. The narrator plays up the extreme evasiveness of Capra's sublimated and overtly Christian rewrite, but as Olson heads into her own concluding ruminations on suicide, it is not clear that her own ending is any more perfectly calibrated to the film that has preceded it.

In other words, having made a large and functional claim about the diffuseness, the internal variety, the metropolitan and metro-sexual malleability of affect—especially, perhaps, for a queer subject largely unassisted by the wider culture in knowing what to make of her desires or how and with whom to gratify them—The Joy of Life comes close to overstaying its welcome, and even closer to eroding any ironic distance or idiosyncratic resonance between Dodge's affective journalism about the Bridge and the photography's rather literal correspondence to her talking points. The Joy of Life gives itself over a bit too much to the Golden Gate, which finally exercises too much metonymic sway over the colloquial and itinerant reflections of the earlier footage. Olson is playing with the kind of personal relationship to found objects and mappable territories that W.G. Sebald has wrought with such thrilling balance and discovery in novels like The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, and she knows, as the credits and acknowledgments make clear, that this genre of the illustrated and embellished almanac is just as much the provenance of lesbian documentaries like those of Yvonne Rainer, Su Friedrich, and Ulrike Ottinger, who have repeatedly articulated the "lesbian" as a kind of sober, concentrated, but nonetheless enigmatic relationship between tangible spaces, excavated memories, and linking threads of erotic recall or testimony or fantasy. As the visual and rhetorical figures become more predictable—and, as Olson's own narration makes clear, what could be more inevitable in a San Francisco film than a paean to the Bridge?—the sense of surprise or eccentricity in a Friedrich film or a Sebald peregrination starts to dissipate. The thoughts and memories of the Bridge are not persuasively those of the speaker—they feel like appropriations, if not impersonations or impositions—and a film like The Joy of Life thrives on the degree to which it convinces us of its own sincerity of personality. I'll be curious to see where Olson takes this style she has cultivated. I'm particularly keen to imagine what a fictional narrative might look and sound like as rendered, at least in part, through this formal interplay of landscapes and soliloquies. We may have a homegrown Ottinger or a Chantal Akerman on our hands or, even better, a more evolved Jenni Olson. The Joy of Life offers a truncated and incomplete but a nonetheless promising start to that looming and hopefully brilliant career. Grade: B–

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