“By Reconnecting Us To Our Humanity, I Believe Nostalgia Could Be the Very Thing That Saves Us”: Director Jenni Olson on Her Criterion Channel-Streaming Films
Like many cinephiles I know, I’ve found the Criterion Channel to be a sort of emotional life preserver during these anxiety-ridden times; while it’s nearly impossible to achieve a state of total calm, one can come close by revisiting old favorites and making new discoveries while browsing through the streaming service’s expertly curated selection. This month the programmers have given audiences a great gift by showcasing the work of Jenni Olson, a director who understands the restorative power of nostalgia and reflection better than any other – it’s a key component to her work, and one of many reasons why her films seem tailor made for this particular moment. Since the debut of her short film Blue Diary in 1998, the San Francisco-based filmmaker has created a body of work as philosophically fertile as it is formally inventive; using a combination of landscape photography and voice-over narration, in movies such as The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015), Olson relaxes the viewer into a meditative state that leaves the eyes, ears, and mind open to receive an abundance of complex ideas about everything from American history and film theory to sexual longing and queer identity. Creating what are in essence first-person cinematic diaries, Olson is free to digress and explore whatever subject most interests her in any given moment, but there’s an underlying rigor to her work that unites the personal, political, and historical and makes even her most sophisticated notions accessible and entertaining. Ironically, although Olson’s techniques place her firmly outside of the mainstream, her movies form as direct an emotional connection with the viewer as the Hollywood classics her narrators often reference; encountering her engaging and moving essay films in 2020 is about as pleasurable an experience as one can have watching cinema. The Criterion Channel currently features five of Olson’s films along with a new interview with the director; I hopped on the phone with her the week the program premiered to get some insights into her tactics and intentions.
Filmmaker: Watching all of your films on the Criterion Channel, I was really struck by their timeless quality. If I didn’t know the release dates going in, I would have no idea when they were made. Is that sense of timelessness intentional, and if so how do you achieve it?
Jenni Olson: I love that it has that effect on you, because it is very intentional and it’s good to know that it’s succeeding as a strategy. I’ve been shooting landscapes on 16mm film since 1997, and I have a reservoir of footage that I draw on – some of the footage in all of the films was literally shot in 1997. Of course, I shoot new footage along the way as the years go by, and I’m always looking for framings that do feel timeless. Basically, it’s a matter of crafting compositions that leave things out. So, don’t shoot things that have contemporary indicators in them, whether that’s billboards or advertisements or even something like a yellow crosswalk. One of the reasons that I love alleys and old buildings is that you have a sense that they could have looked the same way a hundred years ago. And that is also kind of organic to what the films are about – I feel like my films are very much about history and memory, but also about a kind of longing and melancholy and a state of mind that goes together with the timelessness you’re talking about.
Filmmaker: Well, what I love about the movies is that they’re all operating on a few different levels at once: they’re history, they’re personal, almost confessional, essays, and then you often engage with older Hollywood movies like Meet John Doe and Vertigo and Roman Holiday. How do you calibrate the balance between those elements in the writing?
Olson: It’s funny, when I made The Joy of Life and it first played in festivals, a lot of people walked out – like half the audience. [laughs] At first that was surprising, and then I was like, okay, I get it, people are not accustomed to seeing a film like this. A lot of people think it’s boring or weird, or they just don’t know what to make of it, or it wasn’t what they were expecting. In the case of The Joy of Life, maybe they expected a conventional documentary about the history of suicide on The Golden Gate Bridge. And they’re just like, what is this?
But then, for the people who did stay we would do Q&As. A lot of people said, “I don’t get it, what’s the connection between all the parts?” I would try to explain the connectors between the capsule production history of Meet John Doe and a shot of the bridge and my friend Mark killing himself, but the bridge thing is basically just an enormous digression. I’m really interested in digressive storytelling. I think there’s a pleasure in the audience having to stay with you and follow a story wherever it’s going and ask, “wait, how does this connect?” I think my audiences trust me and go with it, but it takes great attention and intentionality to craft that in the right way. I try to craft parallel things that are interconnected so that the different elements become inseparable from one another at the same time that they’re incredibly different things. But in those Q&As when people would say, “Well, I still don’t get it. Why are all these things together?” I would eventually just say, “These are the things I’m interested in.”
Filmmaker: Yeah, and I think the use of first-person voiceover gets that across, and makes the audience interested in the same things because it’s so intimate.
Olson: I’ve always liked first-person writing: the immediacy of it, the intimacy of it. I like the diaristic quality that makes it feel as though the viewer is listening in on private thoughts, at the same time that there’s a sense that the narrator is aware that someone is listening and is aware of an audience. And then at times there’s even an epistolary quality, like I’m reading letters to the viewer. When I made Blue Diary and The Joy of Life I wrote the voiceovers and thought about performing them myself, but over the years I had seen a lot of films where I thought, “Oh gosh, that filmmaker should have gotten someone else to do their voiceover.” I didn’t want to make that mistake, so I got my friends to do the voiceovers. When it came time to do The Royal Road, I had asked my friend Harry Dodge, who did The Joy of Life, if he would do it. But he had transitioned in the intervening 10 years, and he said “oh, my voice is too deep now. You should do it yourself.” So I got my friend Sawyer Steele, who works a lot with Tiffany Shlain – she’s another filmmaker who does a lot of her own voiceovers and direct to camera stuff – and he coached me and helped me through it.
At the beginning of the film I say something about pretending to be a fictional character, that I like to pretend to be a fictional character. I felt like, okay, once I said that, now I can kind of say anything. The truth is, in The Royal Road there are times where the voiceover is me, in a simple, direct way. And there are times where I think of myself as a character that it isn’t simply me, if that makes sense. And I think having a persona enables me to go deeper into a vulnerability and an intimacy – I’m underneath there, but it’s more complex.
Filmmaker: I think the fact that you continue to shoot on 16mm film rather than on digital aids in that intimacy as well.
Olson: I love how 16mm looks and feels, and I feel that it’s very organic to the whole ethos of my storytelling, which as I said is about history and memory and nostalgia and the analog. My next film I’m hoping to make, The Quiet World, will also be shot on 16mm and looks more deeply into being a Luddite. Luddites were anti-capitalist and fighting against the forces of new technologies, I think in a good way. I see them as heroes. So working in 16mm is just an inherent part of my work and what I’m trying to talk about. Now, I say that, but every time I’m going to make a film I agonize about it, and I think I’m going to end up making something on digital. And then people are going to be like, “Oh, so you gave up.” [laughs] But I do think it creates a different feeling that’s inherent to the work. I say that, and then people are like, “Well, you can just put a 16mm filter on digital, girl you can do anything in digital.” But I still don’t believe that.
Filmmaker: Well, I can’t put my finger on it, I don’t know if it’s shooting on 16mm or the sound design or what, but there was a quality to these movies when I watched them that I found really, really relaxing and contemplative. They do feel, more than other films, like a break from technology and social media and all the things that make my brain feel fragmented and haywire all the time.
Olson: I’m so glad to hear that, because with every day that goes by I think it’s more and more important. I have that line in The Royal Road where I say, “By reconnecting us to our humanity, I believe nostalgia could be the very thing that saves us,” and when I wrote that, I thought, oh, that’s just crazy to say that, that’s such an exaggeration. Now I think it’s really true. In the sense that, when I say nostalgia, what I’m really thinking of is a kind of lost wisdom. And I want my work to connect people with that, to be calming and restorative and to reconnect you to the real world, to the present moment even though we’re talking about the past. You mentioned sound design, and I think it’s also very much about sound and the quiet and the space and the absence of people. I’m making room for your feelings. When you’re looking at an empty alley and it’s quiet, maybe you’re reconnecting with yourself at a time when it’s increasingly hard to do that. That aspect of my work is the most important thing to me; it’s very spiritual in a sense. So I’m glad to hear that it works for you. That I’m not just delusional. This not a lucrative profession to be in, so hearing people say that I am actually achieving what I’m trying to achieve…that’s my payoff. I’ve always been interested in work that breaks conventions, but I also believe in being friendly. I think that it comes across that I care about my audience. And a lot of experimental films can be almost aggressively unfriendly. Now, like I said, a lot of people walked out of The Joy of Life and festivals didn’t want to program it because it was too unusual. Having been a curator myself, I didn’t take it personally. I know that people have different ways of relating to the work. But at the same time, the people who get my work have really intense responses to it. I’ve had people say, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” or even amazing things like, “It saved my life.” So, that makes up for the thousands of people who have walked out.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.