Coming Out at a Theater Near You

How Jenni Olson founded a film festival--and became a queer cinema impresario in the process

Imagine a coming-out party lasting ten weeks, kicked off by 300 strangers gathered to watch the 1931 lesbian classic Mädchen in Uniform. While this week marks the start of the tenth-anniversary edition of the Twin Cities Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, the event in fact originated 12 years ago when queer cineaste Jenni Olson--then a University of Minnesota film-studies major--staged Lavender Images, the Cities' first regular gay film series. "It was totally incredible," Olson recalls of the snowy and providential January night in 1987 that started the fest. "The first screening was at Coffman Union, where the seating capacity was something like 300, and we turned away at least 50 more people. I was pretty overwhelmed. I was this young dyke, and like 'Oh my God, there's 300 people here!' That was the way I came out."

In a way, the LGBT festival's prehistory extends all the way back to the Varsity in Dinkytown, where Olson's stepfather ushered in the 1930s. He kindled Olson's childhood passion for movies with a huge collection of movie stills. Olson says she was a "pathologically shy and quiet" film buff, who regularly stayed up late to watch Channel 4 "Comedy and Classics"; favorites included Buster Keaton, Gary Cooper, and Eddie Cantor, and later Tatum O'Neal, Jodie Foster, and Kristy McNichol.

It was film historian and pioneering author Vito Russo who ignited Olson's cinematic career. "I read The Celluloid Closet in 1985 and it literally changed my life," Olson recalls, speaking on the phone from her Mission Street office in San Francisco. "I had been at the U for five years, half-heartedly taking classes. Somehow I stumbled upon Vito's book, and I couldn't put it down. I wanted to see all the films he wrote about and decided that other people would want to see them as well."

Queuing up: Queer cineaste Jenni Olson
Queuing up: Queer cineaste Jenni Olson

While nostalgics and newcomers alike can romanticize the good old days of guerrilla-film exhibition, when gay audiences crowded into basements to watch films projected onto brick walls, Olson emphasizes the labor-intensive effort necessary to launch an extended film series. "It was really difficult to make the festival happen," she says. "I approached the student-programming committee, and they said, 'Well, if you want to do a gay film series, that's fine, but you're going to have to do all the work.' And I didn't know the first thing about where to find those films. I sat down in front of a huge shelf of film distribution catalogs and went through page by page. I remember the first film I found was The Killing of Sister George, which is this really awful lesbian film from 1968. But I was so excited anyway, like 'Oh my God, there's a 16mm print that we can show'!"

Olson may have been uniquely inspired, but in the late 1980s, the local lesbian and gay community was also primed for cinematic action. While the heady politics of Seventies gay and women's liberation powered the country's first homofestivals (a self-described "ragtag bunch of hippie fags" launched San Francisco's fest in 1977), events in the late Eighties and early Nineties rode the wave of "new queer cinema" and provocative queer politics. Movies got Olson "out of the house," and into a movement. "I was fortunate enough to meet a number of really great dykes in the process of running my little gay film series," she says. "We created our own clique and made fun things happen together, like Girl Bar at the Gay 90's and Girl/Boy Bar at the Varsity Theater. A number of us ended up being co-founders of Queer Nation. We seemed to do Kiss-Ins at the drop of a hat--protesting ROTC, protesting Prince's straight bar, et cetera."

Vito Russo's landmark history of homosexuality in the movies had concluded at the very cusp of this movement, with the writer challenging lesbians and gays to wrest "the game away from Hollywood." Jenni Olson's career--and our local film festival--took off at that propitious moment. Olson ran Lavender Images, featuring ten films over the course of ten weeks, for two "hugely successful" years. Recognizing the series' success, Film in the Cities recruited her as a programmer, and officially inaugurated the LGBT film festival in 1989. When the U Film Society assumed charge of the festival in 1994, Olson--by then a programmer for the internationally prominent San Francisco festival--continued on as a consulting programmer here.

Ironically, as in-your-face queer cinema became more daring--with the transgressive likes of Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, Poison, and The Living End supplanting tenderly romantic films like Desert Hearts and Parting Glances--the festival also became more widely accessible. It moved from cramped quarters to Bell Auditorium, tripled the number of features, and finally garnered the attention of City Pages (thanks to Terri Sutton, who first covered the festival at length in 1993).

Meanwhile, Olson extended her range well beyond the Twin Cities, as a film archivist, activist, and festival diplomat. Convinced of the need for a gay filmography by her arduous weeks in the stacks, Olson compiled a comprehensive source list of lesbian films for her senior thesis. After a move to California and several years co-directing San Francisco's festival, Olson expanded and published her filmography, together with a nuts-and-bolts how-to manual for festival programmers: The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian & Gay Film and Video. In 1996 the guide became PopcornQ (www.popcornq.com), Olson's online archive of queer movie reviews, festival info, and news, visited by more than three million spectators, filmmakers, and programmers a year. To the extent that PopcornQ is the definitive source on contemporary queer film culture, Olson is currently queer cinema's foremost chronicler.

Olson has also put her archives on film, splicing together original Hollywood trailers for gay-themed movies for screening at film festivals. Her trailer programs (including Homo Promo, Jodie Promo, Trailer Camp, Afro Promo, and Trailers Schmailers) function as queer film samplers, or, as Susan Sontag has described them, "cinematic Cliffs Notes on camp." Olson also directs and produces films, from her own critically acclaimed five-minute Blue Diary (1998), to Pratibha Parmar's short documentary, Jodie, an Icon.

Moreover, as a "freelance curator," Olson locates archival footage and film prints for filmmakers; her clients have included Spike Lee, Su Friedrich (The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too), and William Jones (Massillon). Renown notwithstanding--Olson informally helps coordinate 120 festivals around the world--she remains true to her school, as she continues to co-program the festival here, along with organizer Bob Strong. "I want to do what I can to help bring films to my hometown," Olson says of her continuing role in the festival she founded. With an eye on the perennial paucity of lesbian fare on the festival's programs, Olson works to ensure the inclusion of films by and about lesbians. "We definitely have had a lot of back-and-forth communication about what's going on with lesbian programming, she says, recommending Monika Treut's Gendernauts and Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love in this year's program.

 

"There may be an abundance of gay characters floating around on various screens these days," Vito Russo wrote in 1985, "but plus ça change... Gay visibility has never really been an issue in the movies. Gays have always been visible. It's how they have been visible that's [at issue]."

Almost 15 years later, the issues as Russo defined them remain practically the same. As American pop culture admits a (selective) gay presence on the TV and the silver screen, the question of mainstream visibility and commercial viability versus independent integrity and political potency looms even larger. Some critics charge that gay films, unduly influenced by sitcoms and teen-sex comedies, have become distressingly conventional. Film Comment, for example, recently characterized new gay movies as "unbearably light," "relentlessly cheerful," "cotton-candy fantasies," and "softcore melodramas." And on the occasion of this year's Outfest, LA Weekly complained that "we're swamped with a lot of coming-out tales that are less imaginative than an episode of Dawson's Creek."

Olson is in a unique position to disagree. "We've seen a number of gay comedies that look glossier, or simpler, or that have more light, mainstream appeal. But I don't see those films compromising what they have to say. Like P.J. Castellaneta couldn't get Relax, It's Just Sex picked up by a distributor, because they wouldn't accept the opening sequence, which is butt-fucking in the first 60 seconds. And the distributors were like, 'If you take that out, sure we'll distribute your film.' And he wouldn't do it. He ended up going with a smaller, specialty gay distributor. So even films that appear to be sort of light, comic fare, are still challenging in different ways."

And while Olson, following Russo, says she doesn't "expect anything from Hollywood," she still hopes to sway studios and distributors alike with grassroots moviegoing. Consequently, PopcornQ endorses "The Queer First Weekend Club," organized to raise Hollywood's awareness of the demand for lesbian and gay cinema by attending movies en masse the weekend they open. And even the "straightest" Hollywood fare is open to queer interpretation; as Olson writes online, "Half the fun of watching 'straight' films is assigning a queer reading to them. Then sitting back and winking conspiratorially at each other while your literal-minded friends wonder what you're up to."

But there's simply no substitute, as Olson sees it, for queer film festivals. "To see gay films in a gay film festival, there's nothing like it," she says, describing the excitement of watching rare movies, "cruising the popcorn line," and schmoozing at gala receptions sponsored by gay businesses. Festivals revive the old-fashioned practice of call-and-response audience participation that characterized queer moviegoing before chain theaters, while fusing this to a new sophisticated, subtext-savvy sensibility.

As Olson says, "Today people often say, 'Oh, now there's gay films all over the place, and we don't really need gay film festivals anymore.' The truth is, we will always need gay film festivals."

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