Filmmaker Jenni Olson on Finding “Butch Vulnerability” Onscreen

And her reflections on "Blue Diary," her 1998 short, that's been remastered and rereleased.

I’ve always believed that the most interesting stories are about people not getting what they want. I rarely write about successful romantic or sexual encounters in my work. Rather, I focus on failed pursuits and rejections. Which are surprisingly much less vulnerable to describe than actual intimacy.

By directly confessing my vulnerability, as long as I seem sane and not too maudlin or unbalanced, the viewer (or reader) enjoys a sense of easy identification. They too have had the experience of this simple human level of insecurity—being attracted to someone and hoping the feeling will be mutual. They empathize, they sympathize, they identify.

So, although it may seem to the audience that I display bravery in being so vulnerable (my wife always says my films are on the vanguard of butch vulnerability), in fact it’s all calculated to gain your sympathy and love. As I fail to win the affections of the girl, I secure the heart of the audience instead.

It’s important though to strike the right balance—to convey the humility and heroism of the struggle but also not to be seen as a loser or some kind of creepy stalker. I’m careful to include brief moments of successful intimacy to convey this. These kinds of “sex scenes” in my stream-of-consciousness voiceover films are fleeting but effective in this regard (for example, in Blue Diary, a quick text slate does the trick: “Fuck, talk, sleep, fuck, breakfast.”).
 

But as is the case with all of my films (spoiler alert), Blue Diary concludes with the protagonist wandering the city landscape, lonely and rejected.

Thanks to this new 20th anniversary HD scan from the original elements, that vintage circa 1997 San Francisco landscape looks crisper and more colorful than ever (it’s especially bittersweet to see the Mission’s beloved, long-gone 17 Reasons sign in a brief cameo appearance).

I’m also proud to say that the production team on Blue Diary was amazing. It was shot by noted experimental filmmaker and artist William E. Jones (Massillon, Finished), and cut by acclaimed San Francisco editor Dawn Logsdon (The Castro, Big Joy, Faubourg Treme). The voiceover is performed by prolific indie director Silas Howard (A Kid Like Jake), who back then was known as Lynn Flipper.

As my initial foray into 16mm urban landscape filmmaking, Blue Diary establishes many of the themes I’ve gone on to explore in my subsequent 16mm features, The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015)—fun stuff like gender dysphoria and butch identity, pining over unavailable women, and reflections on how film and literature can make our lives more bearable.

You can watch Jenni Olson’s Blue Diary above or, if you live in Los Angeles you can see it on the big screen at Outfest: The Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival on Friday July 20 at 10:00pm in front of the 20th anniversary screening of Show Me Love. Click here for tickets.

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF