Navigating a haunted, and haunting, world
In 1994, film historian and programmer Jenni Olson’s friend Mark Finch, a critic who was co-director with Olson of the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, followed the path of hundreds of others to the Golden Gate Bridge, where he jumped to his death. Like most such ends, his went unwitnessed, the only initial evidence being his briefcase found on the bridge. Six weeks later his body was found 25 miles south of where he’d jumped.
In the more than ten years after Finch’s death, Olson “alternately avoided the bridge and felt compelled to discover more about it.” This love-hate relationship is responsible for her brilliant 65-minute experimental film The Joy of Life.
Unusually shot in 16mm rather than the ubiquitous digital video, The Joy of Life recalls Olson’s earlier short work Blue Diary (1997) as a “landscape film,” a kind of poetic documentary, consisting of static shots with a voice-over narration.
The Joy of Life appears schizoid at first glance. Is this one film or two? Or three? A paean to the beauty of San Francisco? A dyke’s diary of love and sex in the urban wild? An anti-tribute to the Golden Gate Bridge and the 1,300+ deaths it’s facilitated? The film powerfully incorporates all three into an ultimately cohesive and compelling work.
The Joy of Life is split into two discrete sections, segued by a poetry reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti about an “anchorless” San Francisco (“in that vale of light the city drifts, anchorless, upon the ocean”). But Olson makes it a unified work in intriguing ways. The narrator of both sections is performance artist Harriet “Harry” Dodge. In the first, impersonating a Midwestern dyke newly arrived in San Francisco, she voice-overs vivid tales of lesbian love and lust, extemporizing on everything from wooing a straight girl to fist-fucking to the miseries of self-doubt (“the veiled misogyny of my butchness, of my not wanting to be a girl”). There’s also humor here, as when she critiques her analyst: “My therapist is getting on my nerves. She’s always saying, ‘That must have been hard for you.'” The film’s suicide trope constantly beckons, however, and soon Dodge is discoursing on a classic Hollywood “suicide movie,” Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, and how the original ending was changed to avoid the Doe’s suicide – a striking parallel to the human propensity for side-stepping this phenomenon, and specifically, in the film’s context, the Golden Gate Bridge’s board of director’s inability to confront the dark side of what happens on one of San Francisco’s landmarks.
The second section profiles the history of the bridge as both a stunning achievement architecturally and culturally, and “a stepping-off point for disillusioned individuals who came west to California” – Olson is from Minnesota – “looking for something they never found.” Olson/Dodge dispenses the grim facts as coolly as she does the subjective narrative of the first section – the 98 percent mortality rate, the “violent, disfiguring death” that results from the 75-mile-per-hour jump. But she also has a poetic respect for this awesome enemy of life, bowing to it as “a terrifying, almost apocalyptic structure, a man-made steel cliff that serves as a virtual end of the earth for the desperate souls wanting to leave this world with a flourish.”
The voice-over links both sections aurally, but Olson makes further connections visually. Except for the middle Ferlinghetti passage, in which the screen goes black for the poem’s duration, the film consists entirely of seemingly static shots of San Francisco. These shots (by cinematographer Sophia Constantinou) can be read together as a fascinating inversion of the German “city symphony” film of the silent era (think the 1927Berlin: Symphony of a Great City), with Olson freezing the earlier films’ view of modern urban life as pleasurable chaos into a kind of still-life version of the Big City, echoing the film’s theme of a world of physical and emotional isolation.
While the narrator of the first section guides viewers through her inner world, a psychic zone at once vibrant with promise and chilly as relationships end and connections vanish with disturbing speed, the visuals linger on the outer world that’s surprisingly similar: Hopperesque urbanscapes lit with the moody colors of late afternoon and always overshadowed by the bridge. But like the narration, these images of empty streets and quiet waterways also contain subtle signs of life, bringing The Joy of Life closer in an unexpected sense to the “city symphony” films. The city, like Dodge’s emotional landscape, is not quite empty after all. A deserted estuary comes alive with small but persistent ripples; an empty sky is interrupted by a bird flying almost out of eyeshot; a hillside of homes, lit for dusk, rises dramatically against a pink-orange sky. These gorgeous tableaux incorporating small sparks of life wonderfully embody the film’s view of the place of the individual – whether the dyke narrator, the anonymous people in the hillside homes, or the unseen casualties of the bridge – struggling alone, but not without hope, in a haunted, and haunting, world. This is the world that Mark Finch and countless others have left via the bridge, that the film tries to make sense of.
The second section is dominated by images of the bridge, more blood-red than golden, ominously piercing the clouds as the narrator describes its origins, how the guard rails were lowered by a second designer in a calculation that history has proved fatal, and the intermittent efforts to install suicide barriers that won’t compromise the bridge’s integrity. (In response to the film, the bridge’s board of directors recently changed its position and commissioned another study of how to make it suicide-proof.)
Olson’s (right) hypnotic pacing, painterly compositions, and formal manipulations of the material – even the opening and closing piano music resonates as the work of San Francisco cult artist and supposed bridge suicide Weldon Kees – make this an important film. In the vibrant details of the dyke diary – and despite the narrator’s frustrations, there’s also joy and humor there – and the images of a lonely city secretly teeming with life in spite of the bridge and what it represents, it’s clear that the title, from Goethe, is not ironic but meant to be taken seriously. The Joy of Life offers subtle but compelling reasons for crossing the bridge.