*NOTE AND CONTENT WARNING: THIS PIECE INCLUDES DISCUSSION OF SUICIDE, INCLUDING THE AUTHOR’S PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH SUICIDAL IDEATION.
Jenni Olson’s landscape documentaries are among the simplest and most beautiful pieces of film art to come out of this century. I’ve written before that Olson’s films, along with the works of her spiritual predecessor Jan Oxenberg, are exactly what movies should look like. They stimulate every part of us, burrowing into our brains and creating an effect akin to pulling a Being John Malkovich on the viewer. Olson’s narrations, presented against her trademark static photography by the excellent Sophia Constantinou, somehow mimic the act of thinking itself, as if we aren’t just listening to her words but absorbing and interacting with them, creating them ourselves. This is partly just that they’re so immediately relatable, their stories of tiny crushes and nights out and falling in and out of love and the more general conspiratorial, humanistic approach as readily and easily accessible as they are specific.
These films are tightly scripted but open and raw. It’s a stream of consciousness ramble worked over and rewritten and cleaned up and polished to the point that they eventually come around to the other side again and are stunning in their clarity. As celebrated as she is, I don’t know that she gets enough credit for her writing. The first half of The Joy of Life is a series of shorts stories, or diary entries, from a cis lesbian woman living in San Francisco. She relates to us good dates, bad dates, what went on at the bar last night, etc. The day to day life of someone living in a big city is often filled with the excitement of a social life like no other right next to the more mundane and universal issue like doing laundry and having to get to work on time. This isn’t anything too earth-shattering on its own, but Olson does the work of allowing us into these moments with an open heart, inviting us to share in these little secrets. Is any of it true? A cute tag at the end of the film’s credits tells us… sure, maybe. It all sounds close enough to what we might reasonably imagine Olson’s life to be like, at least in some fashion. But it’s not that important that we believe any of it as absolute truth. Olson would seem to subscribe to Herzog’s school of “ecstatic truth,” but on an even more personal and intuitively profound level. And all this from a bunch of little anecdotes about who she’s fucking and how some girl’s wrists looked one night? Her scripts, again, take on the appearance of a found journal, something we almost shouldn’t be listening to. They are intimate and small, but carry that weight of being a detailed account of daily trivialities to the point that we’re almost lulled into asking… okay, so what? But as always, it’s going somewhere.
On the other hand it could also be the case that these are all just written off the top of her head (not a bad thing- and, no, they’re not). She’s that good.
The honesty of the filmmaking is tied also to an almost unbearable anxiety and insecurity. If you’ve lived with these symptoms, her tales of constantly thinking about (and wishing for) sex and intimacy will sound scarily familiar. These thoughts are coupled with the other side of the coin as well, with all of that grasping and holding on masking the more difficult realities of feeling that you don’t actually deserve any of this, that all those folks who’ve wandered in and out of your life (or your bed) were right to eventually see you for the weak little weirdo you are and not call when they say they’re gonna call. “She never called,” stated plainly, is the line in the film that’s left to linger over several long shots of the San Francisco skyline before finally cutting to black and ushering us into the second half of the film.
Here, we see where this was all heading. Olson’s camera, alongside the wistful narration by Harriet “Harry” Dodge, has been teasing us – not leading us on, but leading us out. As all of this has been unfolding, she’s kept a steady eye on her city, watching closely as the wind has blown down side streets and alleyways, hovering over stop signs and inching up the hills.
But before we get there, it’s important to understand that another way in which Olson’s cinema connects so readily to the audience is that she shoots her city in such a way that it looks like our city. She’s in San Francisco, and her city and home is meaningful to her. But she avoids obvious outsider landmarks and points of reference that would more readily announce themselves as being in any one place in particular. She shoots those alleyways and underpasses, trees poking out of the sidewalk, cars parked along the street at dusk. It looks like my city. It looks like Philly, or Asheville, my original and adopted hometowns, respectively. It just looks like home. It’s another way in which the shift from the first half to the second makes us feel that anxiety more acutely, as we question why she’s bothered to do this at all outside of these simply being the locations she’s familiar with. If you’re shooting San Francisco, there’s one landmark you can’t avoid. We still aren’t there yet, though. The Joy of Life carves out a path toward its thesis statement through two improbable but surprisingly intertwined points of interest: film history, and the capitalist obsession with and exploitation of suicidal ideation.
Outlining the series of events surrounding the production of Capra’s Meet John Doe, we learn that right up until its release (and after, in one strange case), the director had been toying with retaining its source material’s original ending – the suicide of John Doe. Capra, a decidedly Christian filmmaker, recognized this narrative’s artistic merit but just couldn’t – or, more pointedly, refused to – square it with his stated goal of cinematic proselytizing. So he ends his film not on the naturally arriving climax of having to follow through on his already grim scenario, but on his characters telling the audience that if something is good enough to die for, it’s good enough to live for. This is all well and good and is consistent with Capra’s filmography of last-minute salvation in the face of the crushing realities of daily life. And while interesting and relevant to the rest of the material in Olson’s film, it’s that same juxtaposition of narration and photography that drive the point home and create maybe the most abstract mini-sequence in the film, as the camera captures repeating shots of telephone poles layered across San Francisco. They take on the deranged form of industrial blasphemy they’ve always been, a tall dead mockery of Christian iconography carrying the energy and messages powering an entire city. As always, Olson simply presents these objects for us to inspect, allowing us to derive their meaning both from her direct communication and our own philosophical and emotional participation.
This Hollywood history lesson transitions into Olson’s own personal tragedy. She reveals that for all the restless nights and bouts with depression, she never felt suicidal. But she has felt its effects. Mark Finch, Olson’s friend and fellow queer cinema mainstay, took his own life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1995. The story of Finch’s death clarifies the film’s purpose. The Joy of Life never goes so far as to speculate or even comment in any great detail on what might have led to Finch’s decision to die. What it does instead is double down on the effect of the first half’s method of communication.
For anyone who’s never been on an awkward date or had to overthink a look or a phrase from a possible love interest, those early stories may seem interesting if unimportant, a diversion or just an impressively written character study. To the rest of us they ring true in ways comforting and uncomfortable. So it is with The Joy of Life’s study of the history of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco’s war with its agents in trying to erect barriers to potential jumpers. Olson tells us she avoids the bridge now. It is forever associated with her friend. But she is drawn to it, wanting to understand both its power and its history, hoping to get to the bottom of why this had been allowed to happen in the first place. Dodge’s cool, calm narration never wavers, but just the same feels different in the second half of the film. The bridge is shot with the same familiarity and remove as the neighborhoods of earlier in the movie, but this time it always looms in the distance. It has been there all along, this object of civic pride and death.
To understand the depravity of a system that will use anything and everything as an excuse to not enforce its core tenet – the protection of human life – we have to first understand just who exactly is being undermined within that system. The most heinous reasoning offered by the film as to why one attempt to install jumper-proof guardrails into the bridge’s architecture failed was that, if denied access to the bridge as a tool, they’d just find another spot and kill themselves there. Olson points out that this was eventually proven to be false, and that of the small number of survivors, only a tiny percent went on to commit suicide by some other means. We find this often in stories of bureaucratic obstinacy, that either their logic or methods or both can be disproven but only after the damage has already been done. It’s not always life or death, but that rarely seems to make a difference when looked at as an overall pattern. This shouldn’t be news, but it’s a built-in function of any capitalist structure that when faced with the choice between providing services that could improve or maintain life or saving money, people are going to die. That those individuals might have chosen death to begin with shouldn’t factor in.
I’ll digress here to point out too that it’s anyone’s right to live or die on their own terms. It may not please or impress others, and the circumstances may be such that those choices could have been different had the surrounding circumstances been different, but that’s the fact of it. We can imagine a stronger loving world where no one might decide to jump off a bridge, but that does little (nothing) to change the fact that the world we’re stuck with, at the moment, is what it is.
Suicide and suicidal ideation are common enough. This thought pattern has been a part of my life for as far back as I can remember. Ideation, fantasizing, planning – it is with me almost every second of every day. As with the cliche that men think about sex every seven seconds, I am thinking of suicide. It is a constant, ingrained and free-flowing function of my brain. I say all this not to shock or hurt or scare anyone. It’s to illustrate that suicide is not some abstract concept, something that could never possibly happen, something unthinkable. Unfortunately, this is probably also not news to you. More than likely, you’ve been hit directly or indirectly by this in your own life. The obsessive feeling that I may someday take my own life comes as naturally as most people know they will someday simply die. It’s not a sensation of imminent threat, and I have no expectation of it occurring tomorrow or any time soon, but that has changed before and can change in an instant. This thought doesn’t make me sad, and isn’t even directly tied to my depression, at least not in any sense that I understand as being relevant in a normal walking around sort of way. It lives outside of what I consider my observable and manageable mental illness. It is completely its own thing. Obviously, doctors say otherwise, but to live with it and feel it grow inside you for years, decades, is an experience that can’t really be summed up in a film review. But it’s with this point of view that I live each day. It’s how I eat, shower, go to work, and watch movies. So with that, it’s possible to understand just how monstrous it really is to live under a system that could easily, with the writing of a check, create a structure within which to protect people who may not have the very particular combination of symptoms or relative social safety nets that could allow them to just tell themselves, I’ll live another day. I’ll just get through tonight and maybe tomorrow will be better. The feeling won’t leave entirely, but it can more or less be suppressed, either through mental health work or simple distraction. Because sometimes people do try again. So why, if your stated belief is that “this is a bad thing,” do you permit those second chances through inaction? Again, it sounds baffling until we remember – they were able to save a little money and get on with other things. The film’s post-script points out that, because of this film and in joint effort with other San Francisco filmmakers and citizens, progress is indeed being made.
The Joy of Life goes over all the facts and numbers and reasons and red tape and all the rest, finally being a presentation on the joy of understanding and protecting one another. We sometimes fail, and then we feel helpless. There must have been something more we could or should have said or done. Olson ends on the notion that all these experiences, shaped by our inner selves and outside experiences equally, are vital. You feel the joy of life when faced with something that forces you outside of yourself. Like after someone dies, or walking out of a movie. After watching The Joy of Life, I feel grateful for Jenni Olson, for Mark Finch, and for anyone who didn’t pick today to be their last day on Earth. And while I may not be grateful for the motherfuckers who let thousands of people fall to their deaths, their bodies broken and disfigured and washed away by the tide, they are also a part of this story. I am grateful for the story. It all ends up the same. We can rail against these systems that hold us in such contempt, that grind us up and keep us running back in for more. But the distant looming art deco spectres in every hometown are only as useful as we allow them to be, and we can look on them and use them any way we want. The film argues a step further that we can actually take these mundane objects and systems and patterns that could otherwise be twisted into the familiar gears of the capitalist murder machine and transform and reclaim them. And we can avoid the pain of death by embracing the joy of life.