Balancing Acts

Vertiginous 'Joy of Life' gravitates to extremes but inspires moderation

As a still-affectionate former resident of San Francisco, I am forever grateful to The Joy of Life for that moment, midway through the film, when the screen goes black and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's voice addresses the city's shifting light—describing finally the veil of evening fog in which "the city drifts anchorless upon the ocean." San Francisco, along with New Orleans, strikes me as the rare American city that stands up to its myths, that reveals itself as even more unsettling than one expects. Plenty of that uncanniness may, as Jenni Olson's film begins by noting, owe to the city's longtime diversity (which New Orleans shares—or did). But I would make a case, too (as does Olson's film, more subtly), for the influence of place: In both New Orleans and San Francisco, a person is reminded daily of the shape of the land—whether soup bowl or bony-spined, restless dragon—and that land's precarious position at the edge of water.

Part dyke's own Sex and the City, part documentary, and all collage, The Joy of Life provides a lover's look at the pain and bliss of desiring, whether the desired be a beautiful woman, a dead friend, a place called San Francisco, or film itself. The movie joins voiceover to a succession of found images filmed around San Francisco. The camera remains fixed, yet it captures movement within the frame: A hilltop scene foregrounds a barge's slow crossing in the bay; leaves shake across the sky; cars pause at an intersection, accelerate in slow motion; clouds clench and release. The images change with the narrator's rhythm: mostly musing and reflective, at times quick and uncomfortable.

The narrator, but for that Ferlinghetti eruption, is Harriet "Harry" Dodge, a filmmaker and actor with a boy's rusty vocals. In the first half of the film, she talks, as if recording a journal, of the women she has sex with, the women she doesn't have sex with, the loneliness she aches to lose but keeps close for protection. In stabs of insight, she confronts her butchness, finding misogyny, and admits to the self-satisfaction of being a "good lover." Otherwise the repetitiveness of her account tells its own story: This is a woman always wanting what she can't have.

Juxtaposed with city scenes of lush fruitfulness, lovely ornamentation, transience, and decay, the storytelling becomes a teasing dance: For whom is this artfully intertwined message if not for you—the viewer, the most sought-after beloved? At the same time, intrigued by these unexpected meetings of sound and vision, the spectator becomes wooer, seeker, like Humphrey Bogart ardently tracing the mysterious femme. The mystery heightens in the second half of the film, as Dodge, suddenly assuming the reserved tone of a documentary narrator, relates the history of Frank Capra's 1941 melodrama Meet John Doe. Where is she going, indeed?

Olson moved to San Francisco from Minneapolis, where she founded the LGBT Film Festival in 1986. She co-directed the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival for three years and is the author of two books and a website on GLBT film and video, but she is perhaps best known for Trailer Camp and Homo Promo, her witty curatorial assemblies of old movie trailers. It doesn't surprise me that this archivist's debut feature collects odd bits and discovers in them a hidden narrative, one that rests and comments on cinematic form and history.

The original story behind Meet John Doe, according to Olson, concerned an average Joe who declared he would commit suicide on a certain date as a declaration of the common people's mundane alienation. Capra dressed up the tale with Christian symbolism and deleted the actual suicide. Inserting it back into the record, Olson proceeds to tell a story of suicide—that of her friend and colleague Mark Finch, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Or, rather, it's the story of all 1,300-plus people who have jumped from the Golden Gate since its 1937 opening, and the refusal—for aesthetic reasons, apparently—of bridge authorities to construct a suicide barrier.

Olson, through Dodge, cites a study of some 300 would-be Golden Gate jumpers who were pulled back from the leap: Only 6 percent killed themselves later. In other words, barriers help. Olson has also written editorials and submitted her film to the Bridge District's board—which went on to approve a $2 million study of barrier methods. All worthy work. Nonetheless, this "activist" strand of the narrative is to me its least effective. The images of the bridge itself, brilliantly shot by cinematographer Sophia Constantinou, make much of the verbal documentation redundant. The monument is by turns glorious, enflamed, and coldly looming—the steely teeth of the dragon whose ridged spine enacts San Francisco's sharp hills.

Olson has said she meant The Joy of Life to be a melodrama: suspenseful, sensational, romantic, even sentimental. It is all of those things and more. Passionate and postmodern, addressing the lover, the moviegoer, and the potential suicide, it admits the addiction to melodrama, the compulsion to dive into the kind of heightened emotion that leaves behind the daily slog and makes you notice, say, the color of a fire hydrant, the wind among your fingers, the shaking light. Yet I, ardent seeker of the film's secrets, admirer of its cruel beauties and its presentness, its open and attending eye, feel in the end disturbed by this longing. I don't live in San Francisco any longer, not on that steep edge. I live in an uncinematic daily slog, in an unremarkable place, consumed neither by hopelessness nor transport. Is there a way to attend to the color, the wind, and the light without the possibility of falling?

 
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