Friday, August 03, 2012

Memory, Anger and Activism: A Yizkor for the Fallen

or How many suicides does it take to solve a public health and safety issue?

Like many of my peers who came of age as a queer in the mid ‘80s I lost numerous friends and colleagues to AIDS. In addition to our activism and anger, the community also developed creative formats and rituals to work through our grief. With the Names Project Quilt on one end of the spectrum and the Ashes Action (dumping the cremated remains of deceased PWAs on the White House lawn) at the other — we found ways to grieve and engage in pushing our social-political agenda.

This month as we recognize the 75th anniversary of the first known Golden Gate Bridge suicide (WWI veteran Harold Wobber who died on August 7th, 1937 just ten weeks after the Bridge first opened) I find myself thinking of the ACT UP activists who so forcefully impacted public policy and our national healthcare infrastructure — to save the lives of the people who were dying — by harnessing their anger and creativity into meaningful, effective activism.

In 1995 my friend Mark Finch died of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. A friend recently shared this phrasing with me and I think it is the first time I’ve had the right words to express what really happened to Mark. In the same way that people die of cancer, or of a heart attack or of some other disease — Mark died of suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. The contributing factors: depression and being in the midst of a transition off of Effexor (a pharmaceutical known to cause suicidal ideation in withdrawal from the drug). And unobstructed access to a four and a half foot, easily-surmountable railing on the number one suicide landmark in the world.

Mark died of suicide. He also died of organizational indifference, agency bureaucracy, public policy that fails to protect public health and safety, and, public heartlessness.

On May 27th this year while the City was celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the Bridge I got in touch with my anger (and my creativity) and crafted the idea of a memorial and public health activism project called A Yizkor for the Fallen.

Please join me at 7pm on Tuesday August 7th at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (290 Dolores St. at 16th St.) for "A Yizkor for the Fallen" — a memorial and public health activism project in memory of the 1,558 people known to have lost their lives to suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. This special evening event will be co-presented by myself and SF Suicide Prevention ED Eve Meyer. The service is free and open to the public. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (which means “Golden Gate” in Hebrew) welcomes people of all faiths to this special service and especially extends welcome and condolences to the many friends and family who have lost loved ones to suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. Click thru to RSVP to the Facebook event page and get more details.

Also, here are some links to the press coverage the service has gotten so you can read more about it.

J Weekly [cover story]

Bay Area Reporter

Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA)

Heeb Magazine

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Final Leap by John Bateson

I had a chance last week to skim through this very powerful new book by John Bateson which takes an in-depth look at the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is an excellent overview and it's wonderful to see it published to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of the Bridge.

 I was also very pleased that he mentions my film, The Joy of Life several times.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Self-promoting Homage to Vito Russo

A few months ago the folks at asked me to contribute a list for their "ten films that saved your life section." I sent them a list (see below), but more importantly I included this note which I wanted to share here as a nudge to encourage everyone to order their Frameline (June 14th at 7pm) and Outfest (July 12th) Opening Night tickets for VITO so you get to see it with an audience. And you'll also want to tune in and watch it on HBO on July 23rd.
The truth is, it was a book that saved my life. A book about film. Vito Russo’s pioneering examination of homosexuality in Hollywood cinema (The Celluloid Closet) was what facilitated my own coming out and launched me on my career as a film programmer and film historian. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary of the book is pretty awesome in its own right. I have not yet seen Jeffrey Schwarz’s new documentary Vito (which I have a brief appearance in) but I’m sure it will save a few lives in its account of one of the most important American gay activists in our history.
Jenni Olson's top ten films that saved your life:


Note: That's a picture of Vito and I in front of the Cedar Theatre in Minneapolis in about 1986 or so. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Film Festival Snapshots Thru the Ages

I have all these old jpgs where the file size is so small I can't even make prints of them, and most of them have one thing in common (they are pictures of me and some other person; also most of them are from film festivals so they offer a nice little walk down memory lane). Yes, this post arises from my compulsive need to put things into categories and then store them all in one place. In mostly reverse chronological order. Enjoy!

Amsterdam Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (December 1991)
Robin Vachal, Shelley Mars, Alix Umen, Sadie Benning, Su Friedrich, Me

Frameline 1997
With Su Friedrich

San Francisco City Hall (February 2004)
With Julie — Getting Married

Vancouver International Film Festival (November 2005)
With Julie — Getting Married Again

Sundance 2004
With Bruce LaBruce

Sundance 2004
With Jennie Livingston & Guinevere Turner

Frameline 2004
With Rose Troche

Sundance 2006
With Shari Frilot

Sundance 2006
With Daniela Sea

Sundance 2006
With Guinevere Turner

NCLR Gala 2006
With Guinevere Turner

Sundance 2007
With Jason Plourde

Frameline 2007
With Jamie Babbitt

Frameline 2007
With Julie

Dyke March 2007
With Kadet

Sundance 2009
With Julie
I love this last shot from when we were at Sundance 2009 for the world premiere of my short 575 Castro St. Despite my rigorous attempt to get the photographer to spell my name right she listed me as Jenni Olsen (with an E) so that none of my official 2009 Sundance Film Festival photos get surfaced on my imdb page. :-( But they can be accessed at the WireImage site HERE.

ANITA SPERM and Other LGBT Moving Image Treasures

Just stumbled across this cool little interview piece by Sarolta Jane Cump (which somehow I don't remember doing) about the Hormel Center's Frameline Video Archive Project and wanted to share an excerpt and urge everyone to explore the fabulous work we've been doing preserving some really amazing and rare LGBT video work.
I asked [Jenni Olson] about the process of selecting the first small batch of tapes for preservation. “Sifting through the Frameline collection — more than 5,000 LGBT videotapes amassed over the festival's 35 years of existence — was an emotional roller-coaster experience for me each and every day. I would find myself tearing up as I handled tapes of films by filmmakers we had lost in the AIDS crisis — including early and obscure works by people like Derek Jarman, Stuart Marshall, Marlon Riggs. And then five minutes later, I would have the joyfully thrilling experience of coming across exhibition tapes of works where it was evident this would very likely be the only surviving (or accessible) high-quality master — a great example of this is the [1977] Jane Dornacker short, Anita Sperm."
Read the rest of Sarolta's super-interesting post HERE. And then click thru to find out more about the Hormel Center's Frameline Video Archive Project!

Friday, April 27, 2012

May 1940. Stem, North Carolina

Source: via Jenni on Pinterest

May 1940. Stem, North Carolina. "Crossroads garage and store." 35mm nitrate negative by Jack Delano for the Resettlement Administration.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sexy in Milwaukee

I had the honor of presenting my clip show We Who Are Sexy: The Whirlwind History of Transgender Images in Film last week in Milwaukee (thanks to Carl Bogner at the Milwaukee LGBT Film Festival). Unfortunately my co-curator Susan Stryker wasn't able to co-present with me but I had a great time and was very happy to bring the show to Milwaukee. And we got our first actual review of the show — from Steven Franz at the UWM Post! It's a very flattering review and I was pleased at the numerous descriptors he assigned to me including: "diminutive, wise-looking, witty, engaging" and a "delightfully vulgar speaker." Here's my favorite excerpt (and I will humbly share "all the credit in the world" with Susan — thank you so much):
"The fact that the Union Theatre audience was only the third to have experienced “We Who Are Sexy” therefore became significant, as did Olson’s role as a cataloger of the rare. Were it not for her vast knowledge on the subject, as well as her strident efforts to possess many works of art that are either out-of-print or lost to time, the wealth of information contained within them may realistically have never come to light. And for that, as well as her invigorating and informative program, she deserves all the credit in the world."
Read the full review HERE.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Urbanized: Documentary About Urban Planning & Design

 Super interesting and beautifully made documentary about urban planning and design by Gary Hustwit (director of Helvetica). Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tennessee Williams and "the exigencies of desperation"

Just came across this review I wrote when this wonderful Tennessee Williams play came out in a new hardcover edition about ten years ago or so.

Something Cloudy, Something Clear
by Tennessee Williams (New Directions, $19.95)
Reviewed by Jenni Olson

I've been waiting for this Tennessee Williams play ever since my (pre-coming out) sophomore year in college when my (obviously gay) Humanities professor wanted to publish my mid-quarter analysis of the gay content in A Streetcar Named Desire. Of course the paper wasn't really that great—it was a desperate grasp at a few gay straws. But hasn't that always been one of our favorite occupations: searching for gay meaning, subtext, hints, or codes in the works of all those old queer artists? This gay cultural agenda has been long disdained by our heterosexual colleagues—dismissed as irrelevant, prurient, and unnecessary. But in 1981 those same straight pundits were apparently floored by Something Cloudy, Something Clear, a Williams work so bursting with overt gay content (boy-watching, butt-fucking, and joy rags) they just did not know what to with it.

Something Cloudy, Something Clear was first produced at the Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York City in August, 1981. This beautiful hardcover edition of the play, just published by New Directions, features a thoughtful introduction by Eve Adamson, director of the Cocteau Repertory, who was also Williams' friend. Panned by the critics, this late work (written three years before the author's death in 1983) has languished in obscurity until now.

In this bittersweet, and clearly autobiographical, reflection on his first love affair (and his early career as a writer), Williams shifts easily and continually between his younger and older selves (the play is set in 1940 and 1980). Something Cloudy is a startling portrait of the artist as a pathetic, horny, self-loathing, alcoholic homosexual — as both a young and an old man. Mixing thinly-disguised fictional characters with figures from his own life (longtime companion Frank Merlo, childhood sweetheart Hazel, actress Tallulah Bankhead, and Kip Kiernan, his first lover) Williams renders a sad vision (at the same time a tender apologia) of himself and his relationships.

This human tragedy of mutual exploitation revolves around a dramatically crippled trio on a windy Provincetown beach — August, a young homosexual playwright; Clare, a terminally-ill chippy; and Kip, the innocent, doomed dancer they both adore.

While Clare struggles with her homophobic, gangster pimp, August fights off last night's foul-mouthed, drunken trick. At the center stands Kip, whom August lovingly describes as, "Doomed! How goddamn stupid it is to look at them with envy, the perfect ones, the ones that appear to be completely, completely flawless, the—perfect—with eyes like startled flowers…"

August, phenomenally pathetic at thirty, pursues the perfect Kip, pausing to reflect, "was I that terrifying forty years ago."

After a rough start with a lot of irritating interrupted dialogue ("Perhaps he—" "You said you—" ) Williams give us some great moments of dry humor ("Go swim, go drown, I hope a shark eats you!") and wonderfully classic Tennessee dialogue ("Don't be too lonely tonight, spend it with somebody lovely. Goodbye. I mean au revoir. We'll make it together — we have to!") It's not necessarily up there with Streetcar or Glass Menagerie, but I guess hearing August pick up a sailor (SEAMAN: "Tonight I'm too drunk to fuck you, kid." AUGUST: "I wouldn't dream of disputing the matter with you, Spud." SEAMAN: "So you can fuck me for another fin and a drink.") is some consolation for the preceding lineage of closet cases, pederasts, and subtle innuendos (Cat On a Hot Tin Roof's Brick and Skipper, Suddenly Last Summer's Sebastian, Night of the Iguana's Miss Fellowes, etc.)

The characters of Something Cloudy, with their sad understanding of what Williams calls, "the exigencies of desperation," in the end have as much vivid depth, soul, and pathetic dignity as Blanche DuBois. They play out their moments of cruelty and tenderness, spite and forgiveness — finally redeemed by human kindness, the clear overcoming the cloudy.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

My Busy February

I'm involved in several exciting events this month:

1) This Tuesday (Feb 7th from 7-9) at the Little Roxie (16th & Valencia)
It’s no secret that online distribution is changing the shape of the film industry. From giants like YouTube, iTunes and Netflix to emerging, intriguing platforms like Fandor, Distribber, Dynamo and Distrify, filmmakers are faced with a distribution landscape that’s evolving daily. As independent film distribution has changed from DIY ("Do It Yourself") to DIWO ("Do It With Others" — i.e., crowdfunding), filmmakers are exploring new ways to circumvent the middlemen and stream directly to audiences. The latest SFFS Film Arts Forum will assemble a panel to debate, demystify, and debunk online distribution in all its varying forms. Panelists include filmmaker and LGBT cinema champion Jenni Olson, IndieGoGo cofounder Danae Ringelmann, film attorney George Rush and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain. Michael A. Behrens will moderate.

 This event is co-presented by BAVC

2) This Wednesday Feb 8 from 6-8pm SF Main Library, Koret Auditorium (lower level)
Rare and precious LGBTQ films are being preserved and digitized here at the Library. Come see clips from the Frameline San Francisco LGBT Film Festival archives. Learn about Queer Film History as told through The Hormel Center's Frameline Video Archive Project. The Video Archive is international in scope and has films dating back to the early 1950s. Hosted by Project Consultant and film historian Jenni Olson, and Hormel Center Program Manager Karen Sundheim.

3) February 18 | 6:15PM—7:30PM
 Namaste Hall, 
California Institute of Integral Studies Main Building (1453 Mission Street @ 10th)

Witnessing: History and the Individual Voice—A conversation between prize-winning novelist/poet Elizabeth Rosner, author of The Speed of Light and Blue Nude; and filmmaker/author/curator Jenni Olson, director of The Joy of Life. Preceded by open mike by MFA students, 5:30PM—6:00PM.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2012 Queer Park City Preview

Going to the Sundance Film Festival next week? Or just want a sneak peek at a few top films coming up in 2012? Please take a look at my Queer Park City preview on The Bilerico Project — you could also read it on or if you are so inclined. That picture above is from Mosquita y Mari (premiering in the NEXT section at Sundance).