Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Joy of Life in Frisco


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So as I write this, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is beginning at the Castro Theatre. Last year was the first time I attended the festival (also known as the Frameline festival to those of us who find the full name a mouthful), and I only saw one screening, Sokurov's Father and Son. I don't know if I'll make it to any of this year's screenings, but I can highly recommend three films that have already shown in town at other festivals and events.

Tomorrow at 1 PM is the single showing of Jenni Olson's The Joy of Life, which was probably my favorite film seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival last month. I had expected to review it in my upcoming report in Senses of Cinema, but the way that piece turned out, I could only squeeze in a brief mention. I think what really happened is that I froze up, like I do in the face of writing about many of my very favorite films. It felt impossible to convey the incredibly moving, vista-expanding, and, yes, life-affirming experience watching the Joy of Life was for me in mere words. Structurally, the film seems so simple: a series of static shots of Frisco locations devoid of human activity, as if to imagine what the city would be like if its inhabitants suddenly disappeared. Pair these images with a voiceover by Harriet "Harry" Dodge, first in the form of the diary of a butch dyke struggling with life and love, then a discussion of Frank Capra's Meet John Doe illustrating the difficulty even great filmmakers have had finding the right ending, and finally, the right ending: a simultaneously historically-founded and extremely-personal plea for the addition of a suicide barrier to the Golden Gate Bridge. Reading that description, I'm sure, isn't going to excite most movielovers. Doesn't it sound like it would be too political, or else too personal, too dry, too empty, too disjointed, too queer, too formalistic, too impressionistic, too weird, or too sad? It was none of those things for me, and I hope people aren't too scared off by descriptions of the film to go see it for themselves.

Perhaps a better way to convey my enthusiasm for the Joy of Life is simply to list a few of the particular things, little things, about it, that combined with an indescribable number of other things I haven't been able to identify yet to make me love it.

1) The shots start out mostly in the Eastern half of the city, streets that I'm largely unfamiliar with myself.

2) One shot shows the backside of the Castro Theatre, where tomorrow's screening is taking place. Actually, the first Meet John Doe reference is during the initial diary section of the film, as the speaker has just returned from a Castro screening of the film. Her date didn't like it, but she did.

3) Eventually, the spires of the bridge begin to creep into the shots. Very subtlely at first, as they sometimes can be spotted in glimpses on a particularly foggy day.

4) The section on Meet John Doe quotes from a review by the great and greatly underrated Otis Ferguson, who was Manny Farber's predecessor at the New Republic before going off to die in World War II. His insights on Hollywood in the 1930's and early 40's are the best of the period, and his writing style is just perfect.

5) Hooray for feature films shot in 16mm! They still exist!

6) I've always felt a real kinship to the Golden Gate Bridge, ever since learning it was opened to the public exactly 36 years before the day I was born. We're both Gemini according to occidental astrology and Oxen according to the Chinese. Living about a mile away for most of my life, seeing it every (clear) day from my favorite lunch spot in high school. The times I'd been confronted with the idea of a suicide barrier my knees would jerk to the common assumptions: "there's bigger things to worry about", or "it would be ugly" or "people would just commit suicide somewhere else." Watching this film convinced me otherwise. And it didn't feel like it was even trying to. Even though I guess it really was. But that doesn't even feel like a manipulation in retrospect, which is even more impressive, I think. I'm fully on board.

Well, that last one wasn't really a little thing I guess. But anyway, the festival's opening film (Côte d'Azur) is over by now and I haven't even gotten to my other two recommendations: Tropical Malady (playing the Castro 9 PM Monday) and Life in a Box (at the Roxie 5:45 on Saturday June 25th). Hopefully I'll write a bit about them before long.