The Long Take Breathes,
It Makes Room:
An Interview with Jenni Olson
By Jennifer Peterson
Jenni Olson’s landscape films project a powerful reservoir of emotion into the everyday non-places of urban life. Blue Diary (1997), The Joy of Life (2005), and her latest, The Royal Road (2015) are all located in California, and mostly in San Francisco. But Olson does not present us with familiar landscape icons; rather she chooses to focus on empty spaces: a driveway, a vacant lot, a run-down apartment building, a tree blowing in the wind. Her signature technique is the static, exterior long-take with voiceover narration. The visuals and audio do not mirror each other, but form a complex structure involving alternations between voice and silence in tension with a series of landscape images that follow each other at a studied, unpredictable pace. The narrator in The Royal Road speaks of her most intimate sexual desires, and yet we view a series of anonymous, mostly unoccupied public spaces. The narrator’s quest for the love of a woman takes her to Los Angeles and back to San Francisco again when the love affair does not pan out. Along the way we hear not only a story of queer desire and sexual longing, but also an excursus on California’s colonial history, Father Junípero Serra’s Mission system and its destruction of the traditional Native American way of life. This history is of course tied to the land, but the film takes that sense of landscape and refracts it across time. While we hear about California’s historical and political history we see a series of landscapes in the present tense; in these moments the film creates a temporal gap between past and present. But the bulk of the film is comprised of the narrator’s story of unrequited loves. This narration is self-deprecating and frequently humorous, and the fact that it comes attached to images of empty landscapes (rather than the human faces that populate conventional narrative films) makes it, movingly, a meditation on the spatial erotics of contemporary loneliness. Olson likes to describe The Royal Road as: “Butch dyke pining over unavailable women and the Spanish colonization of California.” The film is this, and much more.
The Royal Road will be released on DVD and VOD on September 6, 2016. This interview took place at the Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles on August 1, 2015.
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Jennifer Peterson: You have a very busy career. In addition to being a filmmaker you are a historian of film, specifically LGBT film. You’re also a film collector and programmer, and have worked in distribution for Wolfe Releasing. How do you manage to fit filmmaking into your life?
Jenni Olson: I work as a part-time consultant at Wolfe. The idea is that the rest of the time I’m working on my creative stuff. Which mainly is true and somehow I do manage to get creative things done. Then of course I have a wife and kids and a very busy life, just being involved in what’s going on in the world. And helping other filmmakers. I don’t know how I made my last film! But Wolfe has been very flexible with me, and I was able to take off a certain amount of time to be able to finish the film, particularly the editing, the post-production.
Peterson: I want to ask you about your early career and influences before we start talking about your films. Tell me about how your love of film emerged in college, because I know you studied film at the University of Minnesota. But were you already a film fan?
Olson: I think my early passion for film really was for classic Hollywood. My stepfather had been an usher at the Varsity Theater in 1936.
Peterson: That’s in Minneapolis?
Olson: Yes. So he had all the eight-by-ten production stills from practically every movie made in 1936. When I was little, like six years old, I would flip through all these amazing black-and-white stills and I was just fascinated by that, all the actors and stuff. When I was a few years older, I started watching old movies on TV. I would stay up late and watch all kinds of classic Hollywood movies. Jimmy Cagney and Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire were kind of my idols. In many ways I feel very shaped by their personalities as models for my own development.
Peterson: Those are some good models, especially Buster Keaton, maybe not so much Jimmy Cagney. I always think of him in Public Enemy (1931)…
Olson: I was obsessed with Jimmy Cagney. I just loved old movies and I think I escaped into them in many ways. When I went to college I decided to study film. It took me ten years to get my BA. I was kind of a mess. I was an alcoholic, heavy drinking and drugs from when I was about 14 until I was 23. The first four years of college I barely studied because I was so busy drinking. Then I came out.
When I came out I lost the desire to drink, and felt better about myself. But then I was so busy being out and about in the world that it still took me another five years. [Laughs.] Anyway, I studied film in the Art History Department, and I was actually the first graduate of the Film Studies Program. It had just been created as a BA while I was there.
Peterson: Did you have any professors in particular that you connected with?
Olson: Yes, Rob Silberman was my main Film Studies teacher, and then a guy named John Mowitt who was in the Comp Lit department who was just brilliant. He taught a class on cinema and ideology that was amazing. I studied Christian Metz and all that critical theory stuff which impacted me greatly, although I don’t feel like I’m that kind of… I feel like I’m more the kind of old school, I don’t know, boring kind of film historian.
Peterson: I know that The Celluloid Closet was a big influence on you, which came out in 1995.
Olson: The documentary film version of it came out in 1995. But I read Vito Russo’s book first [it was published in 1981]. I read the book in 1985 and it was this light bulb. It was a way for me to be able to come out, by connecting with cinema. It’s funny thinking back because I realize I didn’t even kiss a girl until like nine months after I came out.
I read the book and I said to myself, I want to see these movies. I knew there was an on-campus film series program through the student union. So I talked to Rob [Silberman] and said, “How would I do that, be part of the film programming committee?” He connected me to the person at the student union. I said I wanted to program a gay film series. And they were like, “Okay well here’s a stack of catalogues from these film rental companies. You can go through and look and see if they have them.”
I remember these shelves full of film catalogues. I’d look for, you know, The Boys in the Band (1970) or The Killing of Sister George (1968). All these old gay movies from The Celluloid Closet; I managed to track them all down. It ended up being a weekly ten-film series for the quarter.
Lavender Images program / Alison Bechdel
Peterson: This is the founding of the Minneapolis/St. Paul LGBT Film Festival?
Olson: Technically it was called the Lavender Images Film Series, which I think happened in winter quarter of 1987. That series continued for eight years. But the second year that I was doing it there was an organization called Film in the Cities in St. Paul, and they started the Gay Film Festival. They brought me on as a consultant, and then I was the co-programmer, and then the series and the festival kind of blended, and I was co-director for many years with my old friend Joel Shepard. After I left Minneapolis for San Francisco I was still a consulting programmer. Sadly the festival died in the early 2000s.
Peterson: When did you start making films?
Olson: In 1991 I made a short video called Levi’s 501’s Commercial, which was really just this kind of thing that I… My girlfriend at the time was living here, it was made here in L.A. I don’t know if you remember, at that time there was this particular Levi’s 501’s commercial series where they went around and asked people, “What do you do in your 501’s?”
Peterson: Yeah, I think I remember that.
Olson: The production quality was kind of like Hill Street Blues style, fast editing and panning shots and really choppy. For example, in one of them they went to the Fulton Fish Market in Seattle, and here’s this guy throwing fish around and they go, “What do you do in your 501’s?” And he’s like, “I throw fish around” or whatever [laughs]. I don’t know where I got the idea but… [laughs] I wear Levi’s 501’s, I always have, and I used them as a dildo harness. [Laughs.] So my thing was, “What do you do in your 501’s? I fuck girls.”
Peterson: [Laughs.] That’s good. It’s only really a step away from the TV commercials, except you’re a woman…
Olson: Right. My friend shot it and she comes in with the camera and it’s kind of panning around so you’re kind of like, “What, I can’t quite see what’s going on!” [Laughs.] Then it comes in on me and I’m actually having sex with my girlfriend.
Peterson: So it was live sex in the film?
Olson: Yeah. So it was pretty provocative. It hasn’t been shown anywhere since the early ‘90s and I don’t have it up online... [Laughs.] It’s funny because I do have a bunch of films like that where I think someday my kids will see them. And they’ll be like, “Oh, oh… okay.”
Peterson: When they’re older.
Olson: Yeah. Anyway so that was the first piece that I made. I was happy to be making something that was about sexuality that was bold and that was fun too.
Peterson: This is something I love about your work, because you combine landscape with sexuality, which I’m going to ask you about in a moment. This is really fascinating and important. But I wanted to ask you about your film collecting as well. Did you start collecting films and posters at the same time?
Olson: I started collecting films in the mid ‘80s, a few years after I came out. At first I collected trailers because it was what I could afford. There used to be this newspaper called The Big Reel. It was a monthly film collectors’ newspaper; it was the size of Variety in a big, large format paper. But more pages, like probably 80 pages of ads from these old projectionist guys all over the country who either had film prints or trailers that didn’t get sent back to the studios.
Anyway, it was a very unusual collection of people buying and selling and trading full features, shorts, all kinds of different things. 8mm, 16mm, 35 and some posters, but mainly film prints. The first things that I bought were trailers because they were cheaper. I think it was like, “Oh, ten bucks for a 35mm trailer for The Killing of Sister George?” That was the first thing that I ever bought, from a projectionist in Kansas City.
There was this fetishistic quality to it, of like I’m holding a film in my hands, and 35mm is really satisfying, especially trailers, they’re like big hockey pucks. So I got a little bit addicted, and I would go through like 80 pages of tiny print, specifically focusing on gay films or anything that sounded gay or anything that was campy. I also started collecting things like the trailer for Saturday Night Fever (1977) or Xanadu (1980) or wacky things, just to collect them.
DVD cover for Homo Promo
I eventually figured out that I wanted to do vintage trailer programs. I started with Homo Promo, which collected 30 trailers into a 75-minute program, and offered this great overview of queer film history and queer film marketing. So that’s the origins of my film collecting.
I made Homo Promo in 1991 and then I made the short Levi’s 501’s Commercial. And then I made Afro Promo…. To compile these programs I would take like 100 trailers and go watch them, just reels and reels of them at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco at midnight, after the last show. Because I had all these trailers but you couldn’t watch them unless you projected them…
Peterson: Right, because they’re 35mm.
Olson: Yeah. So we would go late at night and watch reels and reels and make notes and be like, “That one is dumb, that one is not interesting, that was amazing.” I would curate based on that and put them in roughly chronological order. And so Homo Promo, Afro Promo, Neo Homo Promo, which was more recent films. Homo Promo went up to 1976 and then Neo went from that up through stuff like Desert Hearts (1985) or more recent things. And then Trailer Camp, which was campy movie trailers and then Trailers Schmailers, which was Jewish movie trailers and then Bride of Trailer Camp, because I had so many more campy movie trailers. And then I stopped. I was like: This is ridiculous.
Peterson: So you’ve made a lot of these trailer films. That’s very different from making your own landscape films, but I’m sure it informed your filmmaking practice in terms of editing, curating, collecting…
Olson: It always felt more like a programmer kind of thing, a curatorial thing, of like, “Okay we’re going to edit a bunch of trailers together for your viewing pleasure.” It felt more like my film historian and programmer kind of work, wanting to showcase those things. Just to say a little bit more on the film collecting thing, my vision was to discover and rescue prints of films that I knew were either orphan films or public domain or things that had fallen out of distribution that wouldn’t otherwise be seen, films that needed to be saved or hung onto. I still have tons of them and I do different things, either lend them out for festival screenings or license them for documentaries. The exploitation documentary short Queens at Heart (1967) was the most important film that I found. It was the first deposit to the Outfest/UCLA Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation. And they preserved it; it’s interviews with four transgender women in 1967.
Peterson: I watched some of it on your Vimeo page. It was great.
Olson: I’m very proud of that, yeah.
Peterson: And in fact I wanted to ask you about your archival practices. Do you keep your films in a particular storage place?
Olson: For the longest time they were in the pantry at our house and then my wife said, “You have to get that stuff out of here because we have no room.” So most of it is actually at a place called Oddball Film and Video in San Francisco. It is not the Academy Film Archive, it’s a warehouse, but it’s better than my pantry. Then a subset of stuff, the most significant things I’ve deposited at the Outfest Legacy Project at UCLA, so they’re well taken care of. But that’s an ongoing thing, yeah.
The other thing I’ve been collecting over the years is gay movie posters and pressbooks. In 2005 I got to pull them all together, with posters from various other sources. I got a deal with Chronicle Books to do The Queer Movie Poster Book. And I was also really happy to donate most of that stuff to the GLBT Historical Society, to get it all out of our house. [Laughs.]
Peterson: The first short film of yours that I have on record is Blue Diary from 1997.
Meep Meep! / Jenni Olson
Olson: I did Levi’s 501’s first, but it’s just a little video, it’s like a minute long. Same with Sometimes (1994), my other little video that is also like 30 seconds long. I have another video called Meep Meep! from 2000 that’s also a minute long. And it is a landscape piece. It’s available on my Vimeo and YouTube pages. There are also a couple of other more provocative shorts that are not available anywhere, Blow-Up from 1997 and Matzo Maidels from 2003. More recently I also made 575 Castro St. in 2009. But Blue Diary is an actual 16mm film. I think the best way to segue to this is to talk about an influence if that’s okay?
Peterson: Yes, please.
Olson: So, many things revolve around Los Angeles. In 1991 I came to Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival to show Homo Promo and met the woman who would then become my girlfriend [laughs], and saw a film called Massillon (1991) by William E. Jones who studied with James Benning at CalArts. And it was revelatory. It’s very similar to my films. It has kind of a three-part structure, all landscapes and voiceover, very personal and political. I saw that at Outfest and was like, “I want to make a film like that.” Sherman’s March (1985) by Ross McElwee is the other film that strongly influenced me, which I saw in 1985, right around the time I was coming out.
Peterson: I love Sherman’s March, that’s a film I always teach in my documentary class. Students even now still love it and respond to it.
Olson: Yeah, although having watched it more recently I was struck by his misogyny and lack of respect for the women that he’s talking about.
Peterson: I totally agree with you on that. It’s a great film but there’s some problematic stuff there.
Olson: Another film that I saw right at the same time was Louis Malle’s God’s Country (1985), which has a certain similarity to The Gleaners and I (2000). In God’s Country he goes to Delano, Minnesota and he’s interviewing these farmers, who you could easily be like, “Oh my god can you believe these people?” And he’s not… he’s so respectful. It struck me that the difference between Malle’s film and Sherman’s March is that McElwee is not respectful of these women…
Peterson: No, and it’s all under this sort of self-deprecating, “Oh I’m such a loser, I’m so lame.” Like it’s quotation marks around that, and these are actual women who are there and there’s not quotation marks around them.
Olson: That’s exactly it you know. But the self-deprecating part, I loved that and I was like “That’s me, that’s a mode of my persona.” I feel like I was also very influenced by Woody Allen in that persona. And going back to what I said about Buster Keaton, that is part of my persona, this kind of sheepish… I’m just like, I want you to love me. [Laughs.] And then one other influence was the poet Jules Laforgue…
Peterson: Who you quote in The Royal Road. I’m not familiar with that poet.
Olson: Well of course I love that he’s super obscure and nobody is familiar with him except that he’s considered to be the inventor of free verse. He was a French Symbolist poet and he was massively influential to T. S. Eliot.
Peterson: Another famous misogynist.
Olson: [Laughs.] Yeah, and an anti-Semite.
Peterson: Yeah, to boot.
Olson: Eliot has written a lot about how he was influenced by Laforgue.
Peterson: So you quote Laforgue in The Royal Road and you discovered him around this same time?
Olson: Yeah in like ’85, ’86, and his shtick is that he writes in the first person, this kind of very diaristic… you know, pining over unavailable women and this kind of self-mockery, “Oh my god can you believe this, how pathetic I am.” And I identified with it. [Laughs.]
Peterson: In The Royal Road, it feels very personal but it’s also a strategy, right, and it helps audiences to connect with that kind of self-deprecation. They can chuckle at it; they can hold a certain distance from it or identification with it.
Olson: Well ideally they’re recognizing themselves in this way that people are like, “Oh my god you said that?” [Laughs.] “I can’t believe you said that.”
Peterson: As a tool of identification outside of narrative it totally works. This is another thing I love about your work: the rejection of standard narrative. But there is still a bit of a narrative there.
Olson: Totally. I mean in speaking of Laforgue, I feel very influenced by poetry and that what’s so great about poetry, you can convey so much with so few words, well-chosen with craftsmanship. I’m so interested in how the story is told. It’s all about the form and the structure that is inherently very poetic.
Peterson: This might be a good juncture to ask you about your form: the use of the stationary camera, the long duration takes, the urban scenes without people in them. I think you first started doing this in Blue Diary, but you’ve done this in three films now, also in The Joy of Life and in The Royal Road.
Blue Diary / Jenni Olson
Olson: Well you know I was very influenced by Massillon and didn’t really see other experimental films at that time. I guess I saw Wavelength (1967) in school but… I think the experience of creating the space for the viewer to just be there, there’s a physiological experience that happens. I think I am my own ideal audience, so I’m like, “Oh my god this makes me have feelings.” I feel like I’m going to cry just because the shot is 60 seconds long. It breathes, it makes room. One of the things I’m trying to do with the static quality is establish… in the beginnings, “This is what it’s going to be like,” so you kind of know what to expect.
The first shot of The Joy of Life is, I don’t know, two minutes long, and there’s very little happening. But it almost has this wallpaper quality so that you’re like, “Okay this is the backdrop for this story that I’m being told,” and the story is emotionally resonant and there is a lot of melancholy in it, but not just melancholy. And that is this perfect combination of making the room for you to be able to feel the feelings of the story. Yet even without the storytelling I still have all these feelings just looking at the shot. And there’s a sadness.
I’m very intentional about not wanting any people, ideally not even any cars, and ideally not even any new buildings in my films. I try to crop out any billboards or things that have text on them or anything that’s distracting. So the other thing I want to happen is that you as a viewer start projecting your own feelings into the film. And you’re involved in it in this way. Even though I’m telling you a story you’re putting yourself in it in a much deeper way than with a regular narrative film where you’re just being told… And it’s not that I’m not manipulating you, I’m totally manipulating you, it’s just a different way. And all that space makes you go in and you’re remembering, you’re connecting with your own experience.
Peterson: Sure, which every audience member does just naturally. When they come to a film they project their self into it, which [Christian] Metz would have taught you in college anyway. [Laughs.] Not that we need to go there.
Another thing that’s striking about your work is the silence. There’s a kind of pacing of the silence and then the voice, and then the silence and then the voice that’s really careful and deliberate that contributes to the sense of space. But it’s not matched with the image; it’s much more complex than that. Do you edit the sound yourself?
Olson: I have a sound designer that I work with and a sound mixer. It’s done simultaneously with the picture, but it’s meant to be equally meditative. I like to say it’s impressionistic, because the city is never actually that quiet so it’s kind of wishful thinking. And especially now as we get more and more technology and the craziness of our lives — people crave that quiet and that peace.
Then I have this whole involved relationship with nostalgia. It isn’t just that we’re like, “Oh I wish it were like it was before.” But that we want to connect with something, which really is about connecting with ourselves. We’re so fucking distracted by everything, and we crave the quietness of a space, and when we get that we have feelings because that’s what’s there. In the long take in the static camera you’re watching time pass, you’re experiencing time pass. And it is inherently sad, you know what I mean.
I have this kind of Buddhist connection to it which is that when you slow down and pay attention it’s sad. Like: we’re dying. And when we stop being distracted, and go “Oh my god I’m alive.” There’s a simultaneously happy and sad quality to it which is I hope what’s happening to audiences when they watch my film, they are not being just sad, but alive.
The Royal Road / Jenni Olson
Peterson: You talk about this in The Royal Road, section three, titled “In Defense of Nostalgia.” It’s I think the shortest of the five sections of the film.
Olson: Yeah, it’s very short.
Peterson: It’s very dense or philosophical, it’s the center of the film. I loved it. You talk about this in terms of mindfulness, and how an awareness of old buildings and old spaces is not just nostalgia, it’s about bringing us to an awareness of the present. Which is true and it’s a little ironic that you’re doing this in San Francisco, with all the dot-com sources of our distraction.
Olson: Yeah, and a place of crazy development now. I mean, things have been ramping up, but it has been amazing timing of the film coming out now when everyone is so concerned about development. Every place I’ve shown it including in Park City at Sundance, I talk to the audiences and everybody is saying, “What’s happening?” [Laughs.] So it’s fortuitous. But it’s something many people have been concerned with and have been engaging with for quite some time now.
Peterson: I wanted to ask you about voice, because in Blue Diary you have the voiceover by somebody named Lynn Flipper, and in The Joy of Life you have Harriet “Harry” Dodge, and then you chose to use your own voice in The Royal Road. And voice is key to your films. So why did you choose to use your own voice finally in this film?
Olson: Well, because Harry wouldn’t do it. [Laughs.] Harry was funny. I mean I was like, “Harry you have to do my voiceover.” Because he’s amazing, The Joy of Life was so amazing, the voiceover, his performance. And he was like, “I can’t, I transitioned, my voice is totally different now.” He’s a guy now and his voice is much lower and I was like “I don’t care, that’s okay.” For whatever reasons he still didn’t want to do it, which was ultimately a good thing.
I went through a kind of crisis of trying to find someone else. I have a friend who does voiceover direction for the filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, his name is Sawyer Steele. I ran into him at Sundance in 2014, and was like “Oh Sawyer I don’t know about my voiceover.” And he’s like, “I’ll help coach you, it’ll be fun.” There we are standing on Main Street at Sundance and he’s like, “It’ll be fine, you can do it.” Then we did it, and next thing you know, exactly a year later there we were [laughs] back at Sundance for the world premiere of the film.
As a filmmaker I do think that the film is much more mature and that I was finally able to say “Okay, I’m going to embrace this and just do it. You know, this is me.”
The Joy of Life / Jenni Olson
Peterson: This brings me to the question of character. Because you are developing a character in The Royal Road, as you do in The Joy of Life and in Blue Diary, and yet I’m sure people often think that you are equivalent to the person speaking in The Royal Road. So maybe you can talk about the role of the character in the film versus the confessional. Because part of it is you, part of it is not you. I don’t know how much, or which is which.
Olson: Similarly to The Joy of Life, I agonized over how complicated that is. Then my friend Shari Frilot was like, “It’s an experimental film, you get to do whatever you want.” Originally I started writing The Royal Road thinking someone else was going to do the voiceover. When it became clear I was going to do it I think that did shift it a little bit. It made it much better to be able to say so many things that are like, “This is me, like really me.” [Laughs.] You know like saying “in defense of nostalgia” or “I started shooting 16mm film when I first moved here…” It all comes from my personal experience in one way or another, but it is fictionalized in certain ways in different moments. Some things, I’ll be like, “Oh that line, that was about that girl and that was about that other girl and that was about that other girl. That was like a real feeling or a real thought and then that was about… Actually I just made that one up.” [Laughs.]
And then trying to patch it together as a narrative. I think I said this in the Outfest Q&A. When I originally started to make films I thought, Well I could make really bad, conventional narrative films because I don’t have those skills of working with actors or telling people what to do or writing dramatic scenes. Or I could try to make a good film that is this other kind of storytelling. But it has to have some kind of – not necessarily a plot but some trajectory.
Peterson: Right. In The Royal Road you have this narrative of the speaker who goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles and then comes back to San Francisco. She doesn’t manage to sleep with the first love, and then meets a new girl in San Francisco and also doesn’t manage to sleep with that one. It’s a story about wanting to be a Lothario but not succeeding.
Olson: Right. And it is this thing where nothing happens. There’s the original… maybe it’s Routledge that has that series of published film scripts, and there’s the Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) script with an introduction by Tania Modleski. It’s so good, and she writes about it as a melodrama and that it’s about telling the story over and over again, this story about how nothing happens. How in Letter from an Unknown Woman, they take the train that doesn’t go anywhere and talk about journeys where nothing happens. But it’s about telling about it… this is one of the basic pleasures of melodrama.
Peterson: It’s about the desire that is consummated for one second, but then she desires forevermore and she can never have him again. Desire, desire, desire, and its prolongation.
Olson: Yeah, exactly. Then there’s the whole voiceover thing. I have the quote at the start of the film, on voiceover in cinema from Michel Chion, from his book The Voice in Cinema, so you know I bring my interests in film history and film studies. And I am obsessed with voiceover films.
Peterson: Voiceover in film is so complicated, people don’t realize.
Olson: Well it has a bad rap you know.
Peterson: Yeah because in a narrative film it’s often a crutch.
Olson: Except it’s also a unique form of storytelling.
Peterson: Yeah no other medium has it, only film. And you begin with Sunset Blvd. (1950), which is of course a great voiceover beginning, and it’s crucial, couldn’t be told any other way.
Olson: Yeah and the idea of the disembodied voice as this kind of shadow figure. I think that people tend to watch The Royal Road and kind of forget that opening slate, the Chion quote, that asks what does it mean to be seeing a film where you never see that figure… I mean, you never see, me.
Peterson: This is so crucial in your film, and brings me to my next question. I’m fascinated by the role of not only gender but also sexuality in your films. Not only masculinity and femininity but gender dysphoria, which you mentioned in Blue Diary. And then the fact that in The Royal Road your narrator identifies with these masculine characters.
There’s a moment in The Joy of Life that was really poignant where you mentioned something about “The veiled misogyny of my butchness,” and this kind of self-loathing in the next sentence. Which seemed a little too harsh on your narrator. But anyway I’m really struck by this in the work and how it’s engaging with all of these issues but not really giving an answer.
Olson: I’m glad you picked up on that. I think that I’m always interested in speaking as someone who identifies as butch. I have a very complicated relationship to my gender identity and I want to feel better about myself, and I struggle because mostly I don’t. I have my journey of realizing I don’t actually want to be a man, I don’t want to transition, but I also am not totally thrilled about being a woman, and it’s an uncomfortable place to be.
As an artist I want to engage with that but also in a more poetic or literary or intellectual way, not just a like “It’s really hard being me” kind of a way. That’s just not very interesting to say, so that thing, “the veiled misogyny of my butchness,” the self-loathing thing, I think was just… it’s similar to the self-effacing or self-mocking thing. It was something that I wanted to say because it is something that I struggle with.
But it’s interesting. In some ways there are certain things in The Joy of Life that are more heavy-handed. I don’t know, we’re a little like, “Wow that’s a lot of information.”
Peterson: Yeah. Well here’s the thing, so in The Joy of Life you have this character who does score, and you have a description of a scene of fisting right?
Olson: Right, okay.
Peterson: Whereas in The Royal Road you have a character who never scores; it’s all about how nothing ever happens. I find that contrast really interesting. I guess I’m wondering about the role of sexual explicitness in your work. I sense that it’s important but it’s so different in these two feature films that you’ve made.
Olson: Right. Well, in The Joy of Life there’s the fisting scene and then there’s the “She fucks guys up the ass for a hundred dollars an hour” section. When I showed the script to a few trusted people there was one person who was like, “You shouldn’t put that in there.” Like that’s just too provocative, or too shocking. And I was like, “Really?” The original script had been called “Fuck Diary” for a long time.
I guess partly I found it difficult to describe sexual scenes in ways that were either convincing or artistically interesting. And again with feeling like I didn’t want to have to construct a conventional plot. The Royal Road, if it has a plot, is this idea of: I will follow the Royal Road to her door. Which is one of the lines in the film. That’s it, that’s the plot. I am not going to spend time making up a plot. I can’t, I don’t know how to do that.
Again in terms of craftsmanship I think that whatever the story is it needs to be conveyed somewhat poetically. Or through tangents or non-sequiturs or lines that end unexpectedly or are open-ended. Because I’m a writer, you know, and it’s so much about the writing. And literally how it sounds, the rhythm of the spoken words. Anyway so the fisting scene I managed to write and feel like, Okay that’s pretty good.
And [laughs] “She fucks guys up the ass for a hundred dollars an hour,” I love that scene. It is provocative but, I mean, we’re all grown-ups. It is important to talk about sexuality and to be honest and bold.
The Royal Road / Jenni Olson
Peterson: This is the thing that I love in your landscape films. You wouldn’t expect this to come through. There’s an evocative sexuality that for me is more sensual than watching a Hollywood sex scene, which is usually so uninteresting. But to hear your descriptions, where the character in The Royal Road is talking about her love or her lust for the woman of…
Olson: Oh right, “She’s so beautiful I can hardly bear to look at her,” that kind of stuff yeah.
Peterson: And that it’s addictive, it’s like heroin.
Olson: It’s like heroin yeah.
Peterson: Then you have this description of how she smells and how she feels. The words are more sensual than the visualizing of it. When you say that line I think we’re looking at an empty driveway. That interplay between this sensual dialogue and those words versus just a mundane empty driveway with a breeze, it’s very powerful. It’s sort of the opposite way of getting at sexuality than Hollywood films, which are like, Let’s just show it. I love that as a representational strategy.
Olson: Well and part of that strategy is… the wallpaper thing. The image needs to be mundane enough that your main focus is on the words. On the writing, you know. So it goes: “Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. It’s like heroin.” And “it’s like heroin” is the punch line. And there’s a poetic rhythm to it.
The actual line is: “Her warm sun-browned skin, the smell of some tropical body lotion, the way she holds her entire body against me as we embrace — it’s like heroin.”
The way this works in my films then is that you need to be seeing something, but it needs to be not very interesting because I don’t want you going and getting involved in the image, I want you listening.
Peterson: That is your way of guiding the spectator’s focus?
Peterson: Which is just as powerful as the Hollywood way but in a different way. This for me is why it’s so successful, because people have such a narrow view of what film can be. They think of narrative. Whereas there are all of these other possible strategies for involving your audience that don’t involve narrative or involve narrative in a different way.
Olson: I do think that The Royal Road is less explicitly sexual, there’s more of just a sense of longing. Also I have all these other things I’m writing about, and there is something about the whole landscape thing and the protagonist, back to the persona conversation: That this protagonist is wandering around and has this affection for landscapes and buildings that will never love me back.
And I say this thing about the other girl. About: Why does she like plants and animals. It’s because she can’t stand to be around people. I think people identify with that too. But also it is reflecting a longing to connect with people. As a real person, there is this way that this whole project is about trying to connect with people.
I mean, I think we all are. It’s really hard to genuinely connect with people in real life. We all have bizarre ways that we cope with that. But I love talking to people about it and I am actually successfully connecting with real people in real life in talking about my films. People have really intense reactions…
Peterson: There’s a kind of authenticity to that experience that is totally not available with the commercial model of Hollywood films.
Olson: Right, yeah. [Pauses.] I was also going to say that on Blue Diary, the voiceover — Lynn Flipper was his name then — is by Silas Howard. Silas and Harry Dodge, who did the voiceover for The Joy of Life, ended up making a film in 2001 called By Hook or By Crook. It’s a really fantastic film, I was the consulting producer on it. It’s basically a butch buddy movie set in San Francisco where coincidentally they call each other guys. They had not transitioned at that point but they both have transitioned now. Silas has gone on to make several more films, as well as directing an episode of Transparent.
Anyway so they were sweet, they both came to the Outfest screening of The Royal Road and it meant so much for me to have them there. They were totally role models for me when I first moved to San Francisco in the early ‘90s.
I also really want to say that although I have a very singular creative vision for my work I’m extremely dependent on many collaborators. In particular, my friend Sophie Constantinou has been my DP from early on and my friend Dawn Logsdon edited both Blue Diary and The Royal Road. Filmmaking is really humbling both from a technical standpoint and from a financial perspective. It's a cliche but it really is true that my films wouldn’t exist without the generosity of many other people.
Blue Diary / Jenni Olson
Peterson: Was Blue Diary the first time you used your signature formal style with the landscapes with no people in them?
Olson: Yeah. And Bill [William] Jones shot that actually. He came down to San Francisco, it was like 4th of July weekend 1997 I guess or ’96 and we shot on a Bolex. The shots were only 60 seconds long because it’s a windup. Which was not really as long as I wanted. Then I edited that footage together with the voiceover.
Peterson: This would be a good juncture for me to ask about the importance of 16mm for you. Maybe you could talk about why you still shoot in 16 even though video is obviously cheaper.
Olson: Yeah remind me why. [Laughs.]
Peterson: Well I can tell you why, but I want to know what you say.
Olson: I keep raving about it and then I think “Oh my god probably even my next film I’ll shoot on video” and then I’ll be like, “Yeah forget everything I said, I’m a hypocrite.” I particularly think it’s the qualities of 16mm, especially regular 16 not Super 16. Regular 16 has a more square aspect ratio, it’s 4:3. Part of it is that that aspect ratio and film evoke a certain emotional resonance and a certain nostalgic resonance. But that isn’t the main reason. It’s just that I really love the quality of the image and the grain and the color. Which are emotional things.
Peterson: Color especially.
Olson: Kodak has this campaign now called “#FilmWorthy.” I like looking at any given landscape and I do think to myself: That is film worthy, it deserves to be shot on film. And the emotional resonance that I want from that shot, to go with the voiceover… the film image is part of that.
I do worry that my next project will need to be shot on digital for practical reasons, because it’s so difficult to make film. I worry: what will it be like? Will it just be, “Oh my god who cares?” Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” had this whole thing about how photography didn’t have an aura and a painting has an aura because it’s just that one object that exists. His main thesis was that photography doesn’t have an aura because it’s endlessly reproducible. But I feel like now photography does have an aura and it’s the digital image that’s lacking an aura. It’s like the work of art in the age of digital reproduction has shifted; and although I feel like this theory wouldn’t hold up to actual analysis, from an intuitive standpoint there’s something there.
Peterson: Because even if you strike say 300 prints of a film on analog, it’s 300 right, it’s not infinite, it’s not digital infinite reproducibility.
Olson: Although you could strike 300 copies of the digital, 300 tapes or 300 I don’t know. Ultimately it doesn’t really hold up as an argument, but there are pieces of it that do. Like the fact that film exists physically in time and space and you can scratch it, you know the color can change mixed with the chemicals, it’s a photochemical thing that exists.
Peterson: Right, and every print is unique.
Olson: Yeah. I wish that I was able to finish my films in film prints. At this point, watching a film print on a screen is practically like watching live theater. In the sense that, there’s a scratch, there’s crackling in the audio that is different every time. And you’re seeing it in a particular space with a particular group of people. It’s an overstatement but it calls attention to things that… it isn’t just about nostalgia in the sense of, I wish things were how they used to be. It feels more philosophical.
Peterson: Yeah, well nostalgia has a kind of politics to it, which in the retrograde version is simply conservative. But you’re making a case for a different vision of nostalgia that is forward looking.
Olson: As a kind of redemptive thing that connects us to ourselves.
The Royal Road / Jenni Olson
Peterson: One thing we haven’t discussed yet is the historical information in The Royal Road about the colonization of California by Spain and the genocide of the Native Americans that took place. There’s this informational part of the voiceover in the film — the voiceover has many parts, the confessional and the informational would be two of them. This is information, which I really appreciate, and then you even have graphics, which is great. This is one of the places where politics enters the film. I was wondering how people have been receiving that.
Olson: There’s also a structural component to that related to what I want to say as a filmmaker, but also this kind of persona thing that I’m interested in. There’s a line where I say, “I seduce her over burritos.” You know I’m going to say this history of the Spanish colonization of California… It’s my charming or else tedious lecture; that’s how I’m flirting with her. And that’s how I’m flirting with the audience too. “Well these are the things that I’m interested in, but don’t you think it’s kind of cute that I’m interested in this too.” And you know, “How can you resist.” But also wanting to say something that’s of social and political significance. I’m interested in under-told histories. It struck me for many years living in California that people don’t seem very aware of that aspect of California history, which is obviously incredibly significant.
There are ways that I felt worried about taking it on. Like, what are you going to say about it? In the concluding part of that section I express that it’s understandable the United States would want to not remember that history, but it’s important that we do. That’s the only part of the film that I feel is a little didactic.
It’s been interesting, there have been many Q&As where people don’t say anything about that section. I think partly there’s a lot of other stuff in the film and they ask questions about the landscapes and the personal part.
Peterson: Well anyone who grew up in California and went to California public school would have learned some of that. We all had to make these dioramas of the missions in like third or fourth grade…
Olson: Fourth grade, it’s in the fourth grade curriculum. The original script had a long tirade about that, it was right as my younger daughter was in fourth grade and had to do that, which I had already been through with my older daughter. That emphasis on the Mission Era, which is what I say in the film, it’s like, “Let’s just skip the part about the Mexican American War and let’s talk about this glorified era.” They have since changed the curriculum, to talk about how badly the Indians were treated and that kind of thing. And yet still these little nine year olds come away mainly with, “I built a mission,” you know. [Laughs.] I mean they’re only nine, and so of course that is the material element. It’s a good curriculum thing except for the politics of it. [Laughs.]
Peterson: Small detail. [Laughs.]
Olson: The Mexican American War is part of the official California State curriculum in seventh grade and again in 11th. The problem with it is that teachers need to also cover the Civil War. I’ve had this conversation with both my daughters’ teachers. And you can only kind of give a gloss because you have to spend so much time on the Civil War because obviously that war is so important and complicated — and takes a lot of time to cover. You know a lot of people are kind of like “Oh the Mexican American War, I wonder what we were fighting with them about,” and picturing the existing border rather than being aware that all this belonged to Mexico at that time and was ceded to the U.S. in a war that we provoked.
Peterson: It really should be a bigger deal in American national consciousness and it’s not.
Olson: Exactly. So I’m excited about that piece of it, and curious for it to get out there more. I was hoping someone would get mad at me and say it’s kind of… what’s the word, seditious. It’s like, “What, you think we should give it back to them?”
Peterson: “You’re slandering Father Junípero Serra!”
The Royal Road / Jenni Olson
Olson: Right, then that whole thing. The timing was incredible. I had no idea the Pope was planning to canonize him. He announced that intent right when we were leaving for Sundance. It was great to be able to then have that conversation. And I have my San Francisco theatrical premiere at the Roxie Theater the day after he’s being canonized, September 23rd. I’m excited for that dialogue to happen in relation to the film.
Peterson: What are you working on next?
Olson: Well I’m writing a lot. And trying to resist the urge to shoot. It’s really difficult making films and particularly the post-production process on The Royal Road was incredibly difficult financially and time and energy wise. I’m kind of in a bit of a traumatized mode, in reality it’s hard to imagine doing that again. Except that I know that I will. I wish someone would hand me $100,000, I would be out there tomorrow.
Peterson: Yeah because then it wouldn’t take ten years until you make your next picture, as it did with your last one.
Olson: Yeah. It’s sad that that isn’t possible. But at least I’m writing, which is free. [Laughs.] And I’m writing a lot; I have a lot of great stuff. It could be that it will end up being a book and not a film, a creative-nonfiction-slash-memoir. I like using other texts as indirect ways of approaching more intimate topics that are hard to talk about. Like writing about William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953), and how Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck can’t be together. Using that as a way of approaching things in the script to say we’re not going to be together. Or all the stuff about Vertigo (1958) in The Royal Road.
Peterson: Do you think you would work with the same kind of landscape-voiceover format again?
Olson: [Laughs.] I do. I mean I love it, and also I see that The Royal Road is a more mature film. I also see a million things wrong with it and how it could be so much better, especially if I had more time and money. That is both painful and motivating, to be like, “Next time it’s going to be better in all these ways.” But that is very much the way I want to make films, yeah. When people ask me to describe what The Royal Road is about I say, “Butch dyke pining over unavailable women and the history of the Spanish colonization of California.” And then they laugh. And The Joy of Life is: “Butch dyke pining over unavailable women and the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge.” It really is so much the pining, and putting you in that emotional state.
Back to the landscape thing, there is just something inherently very effective in that pairing…
Peterson: Yeah. [André] Bazin even argued a long time ago about the long take and deep focus, as you say, giving people space to inhabit the shot and the film. It’s very democratic or generous.
Olson: That’s interesting. I often talk about Eisenstein, how he said with his editing that he wanted to create a physiological impact on the viewer. In the “Odessa Steps” sequence (in Battleship Potemkin ), you’re just like “Bam,” and you feel it, and it’s like: cut, cut, cut. That’s what I want to do too, to create a physiological experience, but it’s the other direction, in that you hold the shot, and you’re like, “Oh my god I have tears coming to my eyes.” Or you have a gentle edit and it’s like poof, you know poof, poof, and you’re like “Ahh.” But it is a physical thing, and it is created by the film. I often feel I’d like to explore that more.
Peterson: There’s a lot of work on affect theory now, which does explore this actually, people’s feelings when they watch movies, and your work fits in with that in a really great way. I think this is of interest to everybody.
Olson: Yeah. Or a small subset of people. [Laughs.] The other thing about that kind of Hollywood history stuff, I like that there are these multiple layers. Someone in Portland at the QDoc Festival pointed out how interesting it is that it’s a film about a character who is pursuing two women who are unavailable, which is the same plot of Vertigo. And of course I do say in the film that I identify with Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie.
There’s this way he’s wandering around San Francisco and I’m wandering in San Francisco and there’s that whole section about Madeleine that I recite which had been removed from the original Vertigo shooting script, about how she wanted to wander the streets and the alleys: “And when she came upon something unchanged, something that was as it had been, her delight was so strong,” you know, and I’m like, “That’s me!” [Laughs.] And you’re seeing this wide shot of the San Francisco city landscape in that moment, and so there are all those layers of meaning like that.
The Joy of Life / Jenni Olson
The Joy of Life is, well obviously the Golden Gate Bridge section is, that’s all the bridge, but in the earlier part there’s nothing that I’m talking about that has any relation to what you’re seeing. That was intentional, which in some ways is more challenging for a viewer because there’s a natural tendency to want to go like, “Oh does she live there?”
Peterson: Right, “Is that her apartment?”
Olson: It’s not at all, and I actually had to put in two shots of these oblique landscapes without houses at the start so you wouldn’t have that happen, like have the viewer think it begins with a conventional establishing shot where they think to themselves: “Oh, well that must be her house.” In The Royal Road we did a lot more shooting of the things that I’m talking about in the script, like now I’m talking about Junípero Serra and here’s a statue of him.
Peterson: Is that actually Phyllis Dietrichson’s house from Double Indemnity (1944) we see briefly?
Olson: Yes before I make the reference to…
Peterson: Before you talk about it, yeah. It’s one of the shortest shots in the film. I was like, “Is that the house?” And it was gone.
Olson: It’s short because we had a camera problem. I shot it two different times and both times there was an issue with the registration pin that basically holds the film steady as it passes through the camera.
Peterson: I still haven’t made a pilgrimage to that house in real life but I will.
Olson: It’s just up in the hills above Hollywood. There’s a bunch of other similar kinds of footage we shot that I didn’t get to put in. I have Lester’s house from American Beauty (1999), that didn’t make it in. I love that there are all these extra layers of film history in the image track, like the shot of William Holden’s apartment from Sunset Blvd.
Peterson: Right in the beginning.
Olson: Right. I like to say that living in San Francisco is like living on the set of Vertigo, so yeah there’s also all the Vertigo shots.
Peterson: Did you see Vertigo before you moved to San Francisco?
Olson: I did, but I didn’t particularly remember it. I do remember seeing one of the anniversary screenings. I think it was like the 50th, or some preservation screening at the Castro, and I remember walking out of the theater and actually walking to Mission Dolores and hanging out. That section of the script was actually written sitting on the steps of Mission Dolores. You know the landscape is a muse as well. As much as the girls are muses.
The Royal Road / Jenni Olson
Peterson: Yeah, it’s powerful. I think I saw San Francisco before I saw Vertigo, so the film for me was sort of a riff on the real place.
Olson: I’m so grateful to you for doing this interview. I love that you are interested in the stuff about the structure and the static camera.
Peterson: Absolutely, I think it’s really important. And there’s the whole Slow Cinema movement as a sort of reaction against the hyperkinetic cinema of the commercial world. I see your work as fitting in with that, and I think you can connect with an audience.
Olson: I have always felt good about my audiences. It’s a difficult path to be an experimental filmmaker, you have to be realistic. I’m very happy there are so many people who want to see this film.
In terms of other landscape films or “Slow Cinema” — I wanted to say you should also see Finished (1997) by William E. Jones. Massillon and Finished. And James Benning: I always joke that I felt influenced by him without seeing any of his work, because Bill [Jones] had been influenced by him. And I finally did see one of his films, El Valley Centro (1999) at Sundance years ago. I admire him greatly as a filmmaker for what he’s done even though I’ve only seen one of his films. But I think there’s also a sense that I’ve often had with certain experimental filmmakers that it’s a little harder to watch their work, like it’s more work.
In certain ways I have always felt like I want to make, I want to be accessible and, you know, kinder and gentler. I mean the duration thing. I feel like Jeanne Dielman (1975) was the first film where it was like, “Okay this is difficult to watch but I get it, I really get it.” And over a period of time you’re like, “Oh my god I love this.”
Peterson: It’s so mesmerizing isn’t it? That’s one of my top ten favorite films, it’s so engaging.
Olson: It does have this impact on you that is hard to understand but is kind of like, “You’re going to move at my pace or you’re going to engage at my pace or I’m going to forcibly slow you down, and even though you think you can’t handle it, you can.” And it changes you.
Peterson: It does.
Olson: That’s one of the nicest things that I’ve heard people say coming out of my films. That it changes the way they look at the world, that they’re like: “Oh the world is like a bunch of [laughs] landscapes.” Sometimes I think: Is that just my dysfunctional way of looking at the world? As a bunch of landscapes, a bunch of shots. In a certain way it is, but it makes life more bearable.
Published July 27, 2016
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Peterson is the author of Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Duke University Press, 2013). She has published articles in Cinema Journal, Camera Obscura, The Moving Image, the Getty Research Journal, and numerous edited book collections. She has recently left her job as Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder to be with her family in Los Angeles, where she is currently Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Woodbury University.