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The Letterboxd Show 2.14: Jenni Olson
[clip of Times Square plays]
JOHNNY LAGUARDIA This is Johnny LaGuardia from WJAD, bringing you the latest on the Pearl kidnapping. Now I don’t know who kidnapped who, but runaways, can you hear me? Tune into me. Because I’m tuned in to you.
[clip of Times Square fades out]
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]
GEMMA Hello and welcome to The Letterboxd Show, a podcast about the movies people love watching from Letterboxd: the social network for people who love watching movies. Each episode your hosts Gemma—that’s me—and Slim are joined by a Letterboxd friend for a chat about their four favorite films. That is the four films you choose as your favorites on your Letterboxd profile. As you listen we’ll have links in the episode notes, so there is no excuse not to add these films to your watchlists, especially today. Our guest is writer, nonfiction filmmaker and film historian, Jenni Olson.
JENNI Hi Gemma. Hi Slim. Nice to be here.
SLIM Welcome. Your Letterboxd handle is jenniolsonsf and your own films—it’s like I’m telling you the story of your life—include The Joy of Life and The Royal Road and her books include The Queer Movie Poster Book and the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema. Jenni’s four Letterboxd faves are a bounty of queer cinema spanning the years 1976 all the way to 2004. And they include: D.E.B.S., Times Square, News From Home and Tongues Untied. So Jenni, are you mentally ready to discuss these four films? And do you remember the last time you sat down to talk about this combination of films recently?
JENNI It’s been a while since I’ve—or I don’t remember specifically talking about this exact combination of films but I certainly talk about them individually and in all kinds of ways. But yeah, I’m especially excited to talk to you guys.
GEMMA I just want to start off by saying thanks—I mean, every week is a bounty of new movies rewatches and other curios from our guests but this week in particular, I think I had the best time. [Slim laughs] So I just want to start off by saying thank you for your selection. And I’ve been meaning to watch D.E.B.S. for a while and I’ve been teasing you over email for the last couple of weeks, Jenni, about some sexy Letterboxd statistics around this film which I’m going to drop in a few minutes. I’m just gonna—
JENNI Edge of my seat! [Gemma laughs]
GEMMA Yeah, I’m just gonna tease it out. But that is the reason I’ve been quite keen to watch D.E.B.S. and I’m glad you finally gave me the excuse. So this is the most recent of your four faves from 2004. Written and directed by Angela Robinson. It has a 3.6 average on Letterboxd. You are one of 414 fans. 414 people who have this in their top four. We’ve got Amy Bradshaw, the star of a team of teenage crime fighters with impossibly short tartan skirts, known as the D.E.B.S. Amy falls for Lucy diamond, the alluring villainous she must bring to justice. What put this apart from that hot synopsis in your top four?
[music from D.E.B.S. plays]
JENNI It’s funny. I mean, D.E.B.S. is such a unique film. And I just have to make the observation that I was thinking about last night and thinking about the fact that one of my other top films listed is Times Square, which is also a, you know, kind of teen lesbian—although kind of more proto-lesbian film. And I think, I mean, there are so many things I love about D.E.B.S. And one notable thing is that it was the first lesbian film with to have a PG-13 rating.
JENNI Which is kind of amazing to think about. Okay, I do a lot of digressions. So I’m just going to digress to observe—
GEMMA Can I digress and say, it took until the 21st century to get the first PG-rated lesbian content film.
JENNI It’s an amazing thing. So the Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, the film by Maria Maggenti, that came out in 1995, actually received an R rating. And is also a teen lesbian love story, an incredibly innocent teen lesbian love story. Which Roger Ebert actually, at the time, in his review of the film, pointed out the absolute double standard around the fact that it had received an R rating and how wrong that was and that the only reason that got an R rating was that it was a lesbian film. And any, you know, corresponding, kind, of straight film would have gotten a PG rating. And it’s such a romantic and sweet and hilarious film. And the entire thing is it’s simultaneously an actual, you know, kind of spy movie, while also being a spoof of all of the conventions of the genre of these kinds of teen spy movies. And Angela Robinson has just brilliant in, you know, kind of doing a spoofs.
SLIM I was pretty stunned when I watched this this week. It felt like if it were made today, it would almost like an animated action film with the subtext. Because it’s so campy, and it’s almost odd to see a movie so campy be from this era as a live action film, let alone the storyline and how like you said, groundbreaking it is. So it’s a lot of fun going back and watching this and it’s almost like mind blowing to me anyway.
JENNI I mean, I think one of the reasons that it is such a unique film is that Angela comes from both an independent film—I mean, it’s really actually quite a small independent film, kind of mimicking, you know, like I’m saying like the conventions of more of what you think of as a Hollywood film. And then kind of breaking through in that way.
SLIM The closest thing that I could think of to an action movie, that I was thinking of, was like, you know how Robert Rodriguez made those Spy Kids movies?
GEMMA Ah! Love those Spy Kids movies!
SLIM It felt like a lesbian infused Spy Kids. And it was hilarious. It worked on like, every level.
JENNI Angela has, like, you know, all of the skills to be able to make and and has of course gone on to make lots of big movies and lots of TV as well. She does a lot of TV directing.
GEMMA So she did Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, right?
JENNI Right. Yes. Which I also love. It’s also such a great film. And also another one of my favorite of the teen movies, the Herbie movie. Herbie—
SLIM Herbie Fully Loaded.
JENNI Herbie Fully Loaded! Yeah. [Slim laughs]
GEMMA So I mean, let’s just talk a little bit more about the story and the plot in this. Because you’ve got a bunch of impossibly bright young women who are living together in a dorm as part of this private school that trains spies based on a secret part of the results of their SAT tests or whatever. And so then the assignment comes through, which is that of the greatest, most villainous crime family in the world, there is one remaining family member and that happens to be this hot lesbian, teenage daughter of the family called Lucy Diamond—genius name. And for the first time in many years, she’s coming back into the States. So she’s local, and they can get her. [Gemma laughs] And her first outing she’s meeting with a hot Russian woman and the entire FBI and D.E.B.S. Academy are thinking that, you know, there’s some kind of nefarious reason for this, but it’s a blind date.
[clip of D.E.B.S. plays]
LUCY So you’re an assassin?
LUCY How’s that work?
NINOTCHKA It’s mostly freelance.
LUCY So you just do basically what? You kill like whoever?
NINOTCHKA Sometimes maim. Maimings more.
[clip of D.E.B.S. ends]
GEMMA The other thing I love about it as well, is while it is this kind of brilliant spy film that also spoofs spy conventions and spy tech, there’s also this whole other kind of very LA side of it. Like the point where they drive through that tunnel, and then bust through a secret forcefield and then suddenly, they’re in like the divest backwater of LA with this incredible bar with incredible music playing these extremely cool, non-spy people. I want to know the address of that tunnel, so I can go there. [Slim laughs]
JENNI It’s funny that you mentioned the tunnel. And here’s a great, crazy anecdote. Like maybe, I don’t know, seven years ago, I was in LA for Out Fest. And one of the venues that Out Fest uses is the Redcat theater downtown Los Angeles. And I was at the screening with Angela, and we went out for dinner afterwards nearby to Red Cat. And as we’re walking to the restaurant, I turned and looked behind me for some reason and was like “Oh my god!” And so this is even—but I turn and I look and I go, “Oh! It’s the Hill Street tunnel! I have a really great shot of that in The Royal Road, my film.” And Angela looks at me and is like “That’s the tunnel in D.E.B.S.” [Slim laughs]
GEMMA Oh my god, this is amazing. I’m such a fan of film tourism. I’ve talked a bit about the places I have gone. But this feels like there’s a whole other tranche of lesbian film tourism that can sort of end with a party at the other side of the Hill Street tunnel.
SLIM What I also had no idea—we should mention too for people that have not seen D.E.B.S. but the villainous character’s played by Jordana Brewster from the Fast and Furious franchise. I was like ‘Oh wait a minute, she’s in this?’ I had no idea. It has a pretty strong cast to be honest.
JENNI It’s a terrific cast.
GEMMA Yeah, I was gonna say, how many Fast and Furious fans are sleeping on this film?
SLIM Seriously! Need to wake up.
GEMMA Because it is stacked with Fast and Furious ladies.
JENNI And it’s also got Holland Taylor as the kind of head of the D.E.B.S. Academy who’s like also just brilliant performance. It’s brilliantly written.
SLIM It almost feels like this had franchise written all over it. We talked about Fast and Furious, but like, I could see several more D.E.B.S. movies being made—in various mediums. Maybe not even just film.
JENNI I would love to see D.E.B.S., you know, limited series.
SLIM Are you ready to announce that you’re working on that series Jenni? [Gemma & Jenni laugh] Live on this show, exclusive breaking news.
JENNI If Angela says the word, I’m there.
GEMMA Honestly Netflix, Amazon—why are you sleeping on this? [Slim laughs] Okay, so here’s the thing while we’re talking about the history of things. Letterboxd is turning ten. As this episode lands, we will be hitting into our 10th birthday month and also LGBT+ History Month. So here’s some Letterboxd history for you related to D.E.B.S. Are you ready for me to drop it?
JENNI I’m so ready. Please.
GEMMA So, over the course of our ten-year history, we’ve done some data diving into the films—we call them The Risers—the 50 films that have had the greatest ratings increase over the time on Letterboxd. So they had to have been released, you know, before or at the very beginning of Letterboxd history. They had to have had a minimum number of ratings. And then that rating needed to have climbed over time. And I’m really pleased to exclusively reveal to you that D.E.B.S. is one of those 50 films. It has risen. It’s currently, like I say, got a 3.6 average. Actually, if we dig in, it’s currently quietly sitting at 3.7 at this current point in the year. But we’ll see how that shakes down by the year. But it’s risen. It’s a meteoric rise. From 2.6 to 3.6 in Letterboxd lifetime.
GEMMA Like that’s a whole ratings point. And on top of that, if you look at other film aggregation sites, it’s nowhere near. It’s like 41% on Rotten Tomatoes. 5.3 on ten on IMDb. So what does that say to you about Letterboxd in particular and the community in particular, on Letterboxd, watching films like D.E.B.S., Jennifer’s Body, like it’s fascinating. There’s also—we’ve got the films of Ernest R. Dickerson on there. Bones is number one, by the way, it’s the biggest ratings increase over that time.
JENNI Wow, that’s fascinating. And I mean, it makes a lot of sense. And it’s interesting, I mean, that you referenced the other ratings. And I mean, I do think D.E.B.S. is a very unique film that a lot of people took it at face value as just a normal movie, like just a spy movie, and didn’t actually see the humor in it, like didn’t see the nuance to it. And I know a lot of people that it doesn’t really work for, or it falls flat for, or they don’t get it. And I think that’s the case with many cult films that like certain people are really fanatical, because we get it in a certain way. And so I’m not surprised in that sense. And of course, I think, I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, well, it’s ’cuz it has like champions’ and I can imagine that it would have shown up at a lower level, and then people are championing it. And it is one of the—I love Letterboxd so much as a site. The functionality that you have, the level of community and that this is actually one of the unique phenomena of Letterboxd that, yeah, people are like “Oh! Jenni liked that movie. Well maybe I’ll give it a shot.” And that people are discovering things and giving them a different different chance and reevaluating them. So that really makes a lot of sense and I can see D.E.B.S. as kind of a poster child in that respect.
GEMMA I also wonder—I mean, not wonder, I know—that a lot of it has to do with—and we know this about Jennifer’s Body—a lot of it has to do with marketing and marketing channels for films like these when they first came out versus now when we’re like, what, fifteen years into social media and the ability to create memes and GIFs and share moments from our cult faves. And so, you know, there were very few and quite blunt marketing tools back then. Posters, ad space in magazines and the interview circuit if you are lucky. And now there are just so many more platforms and avenues to talk about a film to very specific audiences. So I think it’s sort of, it can only bode well for new films coming out but it’s also so, so exciting to see older films like this, be kind of rightfully reclaimed by the people who should have been marketed to in the first place.
SLIM Amazon, again, wake up. [Gemma laughs] It’s time.
GEMMA D.E.B.S. series when?
SLIM D.E.B.S. series when? And if we’re not executive producers on this series, Amazon. [Gemma laughs] I’m gonna raise holy hell.
GEMMA In fact, let’s just start a whole Letterboxd streaming platform. [Slim laughs] For the romantic spy lesbian content we all deserve. On that note, I just want to finish off the D.E.B.S. section whether with a couple of hot Letterboxd takes that I know you’ll enjoy, Jenni. Caleb writes that “the perfect lesbian spy movie that puts lesbianing first and spying second.” And Brat—the wonderful Brat—writes “the cheesy romcom version of killing eve we deserve!” [Slim laughs] Emily, perhaps speaking to those of us who are questioning the film’s that cinephiles have declared the greatest in the land, writes “Honestly, who needs Citizen Kane when you can watch D.E.B.S.” [Jenni laughs]
JENNI Hear, hear.
SLIM Let’s get that on a shirt, please. On the Letterboxd storefront.
JENNI That’s great. I love it.
GEMMA Speaking of putting things on shirts, I am now petitioning the bosses to add a Sleaze Sisters t-shirt to Letterboxd’s merch range. [Slim laughs]
JENNI Wow. What a great transition. [Gemma laughs]
[music from Times Square fades in]
SLIM She is my queen of transitions. Our next movie is Times Square. 1980. In the heart of Times Square, a poor girl becomes famous. A rich girl becomes courageous. And both become friends as they form a punk band, which soon has New York by it’s ears. And this is very difficult to track down film, Times Square. Thanks for, you know, industry connections, we were able to watch this ahead of time. And in my digging, in my exhaustive research, I looked for like a blu-ray or a 4K transfer, see if it was coming out. And I saw a tweet from the Kino Lorber, the boutique release they had plans for 4K and in the replies—this is a tweet from two years ago, I saw none other than Jenni Olson saying that you owned a 35mm print of this film. Is that accurate? Was that tweet true?
JENNI That is true. [Jenni laughs] Times Square actually, for many, many many many many years. I always said Times Square was my favorite movie. Until then I decided to say that D.E.B.S. was my favorite one. But Times Square is still one of my favorite movies. And yes, I do own a 35mm print of it, which I actually—that’s interesting to think of—I bought, god, a long time ago, maybe twenty years ago, from a collector in Australia. And it was the director Allan Moyle had done the—it had fallen out of distribution and no one had prints here and he had been asked to be included in a retrospective at the Whitney Museum and was trying to find a print. And I ended up letting him use my print for that screening.
JENNI We got to know each other a bit. And anyway, I’ve been very involved with that film in multiple ways over the years and then I ended up screening it—I was the co-director of the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival in the early ’90s and programmed it there and brought Robin Johnson in, the star.
GEMMA Oh my god! You’ve met Robin Johnson!
JENNI Yes! And I did a lot of research on the film in the early ’90s and wrote a bunch about it. I went and researched the original script that was at the USC script library and kind of unearthed things that were in it that were more explicitly lesbian, with regard to—so the plot, so it’s two teenage girls who escaped from a mental hospital together—which is more fun than it sounds like. [Gemma laughs]
GEMMA Yeah, yeah. It’s great. The escape scene is so great. Involves a boombox and yeah, it’s so good.
JENNI They escape from New York mental hospital together and kind of inspire each other. And all of it kind of overseen by the Times Square disc jockey played by Tim Curry.
GEMMA Who’s name is Johnny LaGuardia—one of the best DJ names of all time.
SLIM If I was casting anyone as a New York City DJ, it would be Tim Curry.
GEMMA Oh my god. He’s amazing.
SLIM He’s the first name you think of. [Slim laughs]
JENNI He’s fantastic as kind of narrating—he’s kind of overseeing the whole story. And so Robin Johnson is the kind of tough girl, who clearly is quite a troubled person and is actually living on the streets and squatting on the peers. And one of the most amazing things about it, is it’s shot in 1979, was released in 1980. In New York City, in the heart of Times Square and on the piers and, you know, so it’s on location. So it has these almost documentary qualities to it. And then Trini Alvarado plays the other girl who’s who is the daughter of the guy who’s, I think he’s running for mayor, and he’s like, wealthy and she lives on the Upper West Side, but he’s kind of a schmuck.
GEMMA He wants to he wants to clean up Times Square and bring gentrification in. And then we see we had all this going, right?
JENNI It has an incredible grittiness to it. And also, in terms of the plot, like the ethos behind the plot, like, as you pointed out, that is this kind of, oh, gentrification, it’s all about like, yeah, they want to “clean up” Times Square. And the girls are like, kind of “fuck that” and in cahoots with Tim Curry. I mean, there’s so many things about it. I mean, you sense from the beginning that they have kind of feelings for each other, or kind of crushes on each other that could be seen as just whatever, they’re just teenage girls, and it’s perfectly innocent. But there are moments where it feels more than that. And there are kind of—in terms of the psychology of the characters, where you can tell that it’s stronger than that. And things that were removed from the script that indicated that it was more—that they really were in love with each other.
SLIM I’m just so fascinated by movies that go out of print for years. And Kino had tweeted that like “We’re going to do a 4K release this movie.” And after viewing it, I was like, oh my god, the 4K this movie would be legit as hell. And the soundtrack is legit. Do you know why it’s kind of just been lost to the sands of time for so long?
JENNI Yeah, well, I mean, a couple of things. Well, first, just to say about the soundtrack. The soundtrack is amazing. And okay, this is—I’m going to digress and then I will answer. [Slim laughs]
GEMMA Please, digressing about the soundtrack? Let’s digress about it. It is insane.ut it is insane. I’m just gonna list The Cars, The Cure, Suzi Quatro, Gary Numan, The Pretenders, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Patti Smith Group, The Ruts, XTC and—we’ll come back to this—Robin Gibb. [Jenni laughs]
JENNI Yes, that’s right. So yeah, it’s like super—it was 1980, like this was the music of the time. And very edgy music of the time. So it was produced by RSO Robert Stigwood Organization. And there was like—I’ve written about this—there’s all this legendary Fallout where the way that Allan tells it is that he was actually sacked from the film. He didn’t want to edit it, and that the producers insisted that it be edited to trim out some of the narrative sequences to be able to fit in more music, because they wanted it to be a double album. And, you know, with these kind of stories like I don’t know if that’s the whole truth.
GEMMA Although that’s—we’ll come back to Robin Gibb right now in that case. Because that sort of seems to make a lot of sense in terms of where Robert Stigwood probably made most of his money, which was not from movies, but from stage musicals and from managing the Bee Gees and Cream. So you can see that his motivation as a music manager is ‘I need a movie, so I can put a lot of music in it, so I can sell that soundtrack.’
JENNI And the funny thing about Robin Gibb—which is like, one of these things does not belong in this list of artists, right? And the Robin Gibb song—and it is actually a really lovely song—but it’s over the closing credits, and it does not fit with the edginess of the rest of it. Which includes, like, Patti Smith, Pissing in a River. Which is so great!
GEMMA Not to mention the song that Nicky sings, Damn Dog, which is just the best song ever.
JENNI Yes! And that’s the other thing. It has all this original music that they wrote. And they performed. And that whole plotline, which is so great.
[clip of Damn Dog from Times Square plays]
JENNI The best thing about that sequence—so that aspect of the plot is like, it’s like, here we are in actual New York City Times Square, dirty place, 1980. The characters are literally teenage girls—like Robin Johnson’s character is maybe fifteen, sixteen tops. Trini Alvarado in real life was fourteen at the time. [Slim laughs]
JENNI But in the plot, they’re squatting on the pier. They’re like, “Oh, I guess we need to get jobs.” Trini Alvarado’s character goes to a strip club on Times Square, goes in, says to the guy who’s like clearly like a cokehead, the manager of the strip club. Who was going like [Jenni makes sniffing noises] through that whole scene where she’s interviewing for the job as a topless waitress in a strip club, as a fourteen year old girl. And she goes, “Well, I want this job but I don’t want to take off my top.” And he’s like, “Oh. Okay. Sure.” [Slim & Gemma laugh] And you’re just like wow, why don’t we have teen movies anymore? [Gemma laughs] Where fourteen year olds are working in strip clubs in Times Square. And then anyway, Robin Johnson proceeds to perform at the strip club and Trini Alvarado does a strip tease with her clothes on to the other song. But then the amazing thing is that it all works. And it’s kind of similar to D.E.B.S. in a certain way that it also—like one of the greatest things about the tone of the whole movie is that it has this earnestness to it. It’s actually quite cheesy in a way. I mean it’s a very cheesy movie but it’s in a good way. It’s very sincere and heartfelt and it’s such a cult film. I mean, people are so cult connected to it. Okay, I’m going to tell you the thing about why it hasn’t been released. [Slim & Gemma laugh] So there was actually a new 4K scan done of it. I don’t know, maybe a year or so ago. And Kino—I’ve been in touch with Kino and kind of advocating constantly. And they were like, “Yeah, it’s coming. We’re gonna do it.” And then something happened with the scan. So a year or so ago, it was programmed on TCM. Turner Classic Movies played it, and there was a problem with it. It’s almost like—I don’t know if you’ve ever back in the day, when we would play VHS pal tapes. And you’d be like, “There’s something wrong here.” There was this like, lagging issue. It was an interlacing issue with file. And it was almost unwatchable. And I couldn’t believe that TCM was even airing it. Either someone hadn’t watched it before they aired it. So as far as I know, Kino is still looking into it. And, you know, it will eventually happen.
SLIM We should continue through your faves. Your next one on the list, I believe, is Tongues Untied which is currently available—I think it might have left by the time this is out—on the Criterion Channel. So by all means, seek it out. 1989, directed by Marlon Riggs. With assistance from other gay Black men, especially poet Essex Hemphill, celebrates Black men loving Black men as a revolutionary act. This film has a very unique experimental, poetry infused, documentary style. Do you remember where you were when you first saw Tongues Untied?
JENNI Totally. I saw it actually at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where it premiered in 1989. And which actually was the same year that Paris is Burning premiered at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. And I remember, I mean, just being totally blown away by it. And my background is in experimental film and my work as a filmmaker is experimental. And I consider Marlon an influence on my work. It’s amazing to see Tongues Untied now, and to see that it still holds up as an innovative film, you know, 30 years later. You’re like, wow, this is really innovative. And that he did things like, just kind of combining this whole mixture of different approaches of poetry and spoken word and dance. And obviously, social justice. It’s a first person, a personal documentary that he’s speaking as a Black gay man, and speaking to an audience of other Black gay men. I mean, I think that’s one of the very simple aspects of it, but one of the most radical things about it. Is that it’s like, I’m talking to my community, I’m not explaining myself, I’m not trying to have anybody except me or tolerate me or—that’s not what it’s about. It’s quite provocative in a way because of that. But again, that’s also not the point, it’s like that it’s speaking to its own audience. And speaking just so deeply and honestly and beautifully and creatively. And it’s just so innovative as a film.
[clip of Tongues Untied plays]
MARLON Mother. Do you know I roam alone at night? Wearing cologne, tight pants, chains of gold. Searching for men willing to come back to candlelight. I’m not scared of these men. Though some are killers of sons, like me. I learned there is no tender mercy for men of color.
[clip of Tongue Untied fades out]
GEMMA There’s a reason it’s number 29 on our All-Time Highest-Rated Docs list. You know, it’s high for a reason. It is so extraordinary.
SLIM Yeah, I wrote in my review, I kind of want to touch on how, obviously this is an educational piece of filmmaking too. And it still struck me and stopped me in my tracks. Because growing up, I remember watching so many comedy sets. Eddie Murphy Raw. Eddie Murphy, his live sets. When I was a kid, I have these vivid memories of just being so blown away by his comedy. And it being formative, so formative that I still talk about it today. Like “Oh, you remember that Eddie Murphy Raw?” His entire set. I haven’t watched them in many years, but I still talk about them as if I still watch them. And there is a scene in this with Essex poetry, and an Eddie Murphy segment that made me rethink everything. Like, I need to reevaluate how I talk about those things for my youth, because they’re so painful to groups of people that I obviously just forget. And this came out in 1989 and watching it now in 2021 it’s still so impactful and educational.
JENNI I mean, I know exactly what you’re talking about. That we have memories of the culture that we were, you know, loved in our youth. And at a time when it was extremely common—like practically every Hollywood movie had homophobic jokes or transphobic jokes or racist jokes or whatever reflected the culture of the time. And I think a lot of times we just don’t really remember that that’s in there. And a few years ago, I had one of my kids watch Animal House.
GEMMA Oh god. [Gemma laughs]
JENNI And I was like, I was like, “Oh my god! You have to watch Animal House! It’s such a great movie!” And I watched it, I was like, it’s terrible! Everything about it is terrible! It’s not even funny anymore. It’s, I mean, literally horrible. But my memory of it was that it was hilarious. I mean, it was hilarious because we have that kind of consciousness raised of like, wow, it’s like so sexist and homophobic. And just like off the map.
GEMMA It’s like this happened last year, too, with Bill and Ted 3. So Bill and Ted 3 was coming out. We’re so excited. It’s Keanu. It’s Alex Winter. We love them. They’re so sweet. Let’s go back and rewatch all the old ones. And then, oh my god, there’s the f-bomb in the first one just after volunteered hug. And then they stand back and they write slur at each other. And apart from that, you know—for the most part—the film still holds up but it was just so—yeah, you’re right. We willfully forget these things so that we can hold on to the good parts of our youth. But how did it make you feel, Slim, when you saw Eddie Murphy in this context?
SLIM I mean, the editing in that segment was out of sight. Like the focus on his face while Eddie Murphy was doing the bit. And him just being so stoic sitting there, kind of taking in those jokes. And I know several of my friends feel the same way about those set pieces and those specials. So I’m just profoundly grateful to have watched this. I don’t usually rate the movies that we watch for Letterboxd Show ahead of time, but I gave this five stars. I was completely blown away by this film. This should be taught in the schools. Put this is in high schools around the country. People need to see this, in my opinion.
GEMMA Honestly, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out. Bot just the poetry, not just the reexamination of homophobia and stand up comedy via Eddie Murphy, but also the incredible barbershop quartet. The snap divas, that entire snap sequence is just wild. It’s is so good. It’s the best thing ever. And the fact that—as you said at the beginning—the fact that all of these exists within a context that is Black men essentially talking to themselves and being unapologetic about that, in a way allows us in so much more than if it were more of a distanced take.
JENNI Yeah, it’s beautiful film. And I’m sure it’s available on other streaming services. And Criterion did do an incredible box set.
SLIM Let’s return to New York City, I think, for your final fav, News From Home, 1976. Written and directed by Chantal Akerman. 4.1 average on Letterboxd. That is a high average. And this follows the Belgium filmmaker while living in New York. It’s filmed images of the city, and accompanied by the text of her mother back home in Brussels, read by Akerman herself. And this is, you know, the experimental filmmaking that we talked about earlier. And obviously, in my opinion, very formative for you with your own work. But what was your experience seeing this film for the first time? I would assume it was a major moment?
JENNI It was. Although it was an interesting moment and an interesting, complicated story. So I saw a different Chantal Akerman film when I was in college. I never did film production classes, but I have a film studies B.A. and I would say I never learned how to make movies. I learned how to watch them.
SLIM Need that on t-shirt ASAP. [Gemma laughs]
JENNI Make one of those for me too, Gemma, okay?
GEMMA Yeah, yeah. I’m adding it to the list. Might just start my own t-shirt store. The buses don’t need to know.
JENNI Akerman’s film, Jeanne Dielman, I saw in college and Film Studies class—which is also characterized by, its very durational, it’s a very long film. But her kind of signature style is very long takes, very minimalist, mundane compositions, very static. With just the slowing down, and what happens for the viewer that there’s all this emotional resonance that’s there. And so I remember seeing Jeanne Dielman and being just blown away. Years later, in 1991, I saw a film Out Fest, the Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, called Massillon—as in the city of Massillon, Ohio—by William E. Jones, who was, is, a filmmaker who—this is a convoluted story here. He he studied at Cal Arts with James Benning. James Benning is kind of known as like the king of 16mm, urban landscape, essay filmmaking. Bill studied with James Benning. Bill was very influenced by James Benning and also by Chantal Akerman. And so, even though all I had seen was Jeanne Dielman, I always felt like I was influenced by Chantal Akerman through Bill Jones, because he was influenced by her work. And so then I went on to make The Joy of Life, my 16mm urban landscape essay film. And then The Royal Road, my other 16mm urban landscape essay film. And people would say to me, in Q&As, they would say like, “Oh my god, your film is so much like News From Home, Akerman’s News From Home.” And I would I was like, huh. And then this is the other weird, convoluted thing. At some point, I had seen Akerman’s film that’s called Hotel Monterey, which is a very durational film that’s shot inside of a hotel, a New York City hotel. And somehow in my head, I thought that that was News From Home. And so people would say, “Oh, your work is so much like News From Home.” And I would be like, “Yeah? I guess?”
GEMMA “In what way?”
JENNI I mean, it’s like durational. They’re really long static takes, but like that’s inside a hotel. So unbeknownst to myself, I had actually not seen News From Home.
SLIM Oh wow.
JENNI And then here’s the thing—so when Chantal Akerman died, which was a few years ago, the day that she passed away, I went and watched News From Home, and finally saw it. And I couldn’t believe how much my work resembles that film. That specific film. And why people would constantly refer to my films as being like News From Home home, but in San Francisco. And it’s really astounding.
SLIM This sort of filmmaking, I feel like is very outside of the main lane for so many movie watchers, and maybe for a good percentage of Letterboxd users and maybe even listeners to this podcast. So I highly recommend everyone check out these films because it’s unlike probably what you experience. And there’s such a slow calmness to these films—and your film—where you’re left to ruminate. You know, you’re left to think. And I think that that kind of emotional state, it’s so enjoyable to sit and just kind of stew, for lack of a better word, in your own thoughts in these films. And just think! There’s like moments in your work where there’s no quotes, there’s no essay happening for 30 seconds, a minute, 90 seconds, and you’re left to just kind of think.
GEMMA And look.
SLIM And that sounds kind of silly to say out loud, but it’s just so different. And just as enjoyable as the other mainstream work. So when you’re producing these films, and you’re putting the time in to choose what to say in these moments, what do you hope the viewer gets out of those moments of silence?
JENNI Well, you said like you have time to think, but I think even more importantly you have time to feel and you have time to have whatever your own experience is. And I think it is the one of the qualities of experimental film in general is that it sends the viewer into their own unique experience in a way that means that, you know, you bring whatever you bring to it. You might be thinking—you might be like, ‘Oh, yeah, my ex girlfriend—’ [Gemma laughs] Or you might be thinking, oh my god, the light reminds me of childhood or that literal street corner something happened that I remember. Or whatever just like very random specific things for specific viewers.
SLIM I listened to an interview that you had done and you would call it out specifically that your work resonates with cis men. And I thought of my—this is after I watched it and I heard that quote and I kind of slapped my forehead. But it’s true because how often do men get to sit in their own feelings and thoughts? Outside of going to therapy. Like there really isn’t an opportunity and it’s almost uncomfortable for most men to do that.
JENNI Thank you. And I’m glad that you seem to be concurring with my wacky theory. [Slim laughs] Showing my films that at festivals I get really amazing responses, particularly from straight cis men who—and my feeling is that, I mean a lot of my work, I always describe it as “butch dyke pining over unavailable women”. [Slim & Gemma laugh] Which, yes, is meant to be a little bit funny but is also meant to be a little bit poignant and it is sad and has a poignancy to it, and particularly has a vulnerability to it. And that I’m expressing things in the voiceover, in first person, about being vulnerable—or I am being vulnerable, I’m exhibiting vulnerability. And I think that people in general, but especially straight men, are like identifying with this character, of me, and that it gives them permission to be vulnerable. And that isn’t really something in our culture that is encouraged or made time for and I imagine that that’s powerful. I mean, I think it’s powerful for everyone to connect with our own vulnerability and just have permission to spend an hour being vulnerable.
GEMMA When did you first start looking at the world through a camera? You say you didn’t do film school as such, but that you learned by watching yourself. So when did you first pick up a camera with intention? And what was that camera?
JENNI Wow, God, I mean, it’s interesting that you phrase it that exact way. Because picking up a camera versus being a filmmaker, they are different things. And I don’t shoot my films, I have a cinematographer, Sophie Constantino, without whom I couldn’t make my films because it involves shooting on film. And I don’t know how to do that. But interestingly, in the mid ’80s, when I was coming out at the University of Minnesota, I had a video camera. But it’s sort of funny to remember it. I actually carried it around a lot. And I think I kind of hid behind it. And I would interview my friends, or just be shooting like during a party in this way that was like, oh my god. And I remember thinking of myself as insecure and a voyeur. Like, oh, this is this kind of handy thing to have so that I don’t have to interact with people. But yeah, it wasn’t until in 1987, I saw Sherman’s March. Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which is another fabulous film that I recommend to everyone. That was an innovative film that made me think like, okay, I think actually, I want to make films. And then William E. Jones’ Massillon is the other film, is the film that really clinched it for me. It was like, I want to make movies like that.
GEMMA But especially in the context of LGBT+ History Month, the importance of anyone who picked up a camera and captured the stories of queer people at any point in history. Right? It’s just like, you do not know what you’ve got, until you’ve got it. Or until history happens. And then you go, ‘oh my god’.
JENNI Can I just—because that’s just such a perfect opportunity to mention one other thing that I love about Letterboxd. Which is the new—or maybe not so new by the time this airs—adult feature.
SLIM Oh yeah.
JENNI And one of my many hats, I’m the co-director of the Bressan Project. We’ve worked on restoring and re releasing the films of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr, who was a gay filmmaker in the 1970s and 80s. And he made particularly two very pioneering adult films, Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters, which are amazing gay films from the ’70s, which are number one and number three respectively on the adult film master list on Letterboxd and everyone should go watch them because they’re incredible. I mean they are gay adult films, but also tell gay history and they’re both shot in San Francisco and kind of integrated within the San Francisco gay community at the time. Amazing stuff.
GEMMA It is amazing stuff and it really was a pivotal reason for introducing these titles to Letterboxd after many years. And sure, people can can make yuk yuk jokes about Letterboxd bringing smut to the internet, I don’t know, we’re not certainly not the first people who did that, that’s for sure. But it was very much about filling gaps and filmmakers filmographies but also in history and the history of cinema. And it’s sort of discriminatory gaps, really, in a way if you’re just kind of going ‘ah, filthy films, whatevs.’ That’s not what it’s about.
SLIM You mentioned previously using Letterboxd, but how do you as a filmmaker engage on Letterboxd. Does it feel weird? Do you like doing it?
JENNI I love it!
SLIM Do you poke around on reviews? What’s it like?
JENNI Particularly this last year. So my films went up on the Criterion Channel about a year ago and actually, sadly, are about to come down.
GEMMA Ah, timing. But you can still rent them for super cheap on Vimeo. And I believe the money goes straight to you. So that’s all good.
JENNI And actually The Royal Road is on Mubi starting this month and also is on Tubi. But yeah, like a few months into them being on the Criterion Channel, I realized I was like, oh, I’m gonna go look on The Royal Road on Letterboxd and I was like, oh my god! There’s all these reviews of all these people—because there’s this incredible clearly overlap with Criterion folks and Letterboxd folks. And so tons of people were reviewing my work and I was just like, okay, maybe people are gonna freak out and think this is creepy, but I’m gonna go and like talk to people, and especially people who were like, “I hated that movie.” [Slim laughs] Who made like, kind of unpleasant comments. And I would engage them in conversation. And they were like, “Oh, thanks for having a sense of humor about it.” But of course, it was especially nice, the many people who really, really connect with my work. Yeah, I mean, anyway, I’m constantly raving about Letterboxd. And that’s another reason—the ability to connect directly with people, especially during this time when we haven’t been able to go to film festivals has been just an absolute miracle. And so, you know, thank you. And thanks for this conversation. It’s so great.
GEMMA Oh we’re not done yet. We’re not done yet. Your four faves are of a specific type and what I mean by that, as Slim said, we did have to contact some industry friends to be able to get copies of most of the films in advance of this conversation. So I’ve got a question for you. Are there any like blockbuster mainstream faves that live in your heart?
JENNI I mean, probably the big one—I don’t know if you’d say blockbuster per se. But probably my other kind of favorite mainstream movie would be Vertigo. Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is also quite a muse for me as a filmmaker. And I always say living in San Francisco is like living on the set of Vertigo because everywhere you turn, you’re like, oh, that’s where, you know, Madeline gets out of her car in front of Mission Dolores cemetery. So Vertigo is definitely a big favorite.
GEMMA I mean, are we are we talking Kim Novak thirst here?
JENNI Yup, yup, yup, definitely.
GEMMA Okay, so you’re speaking to the Letterboxd masses now. We’re rolling into a really important month in terms of queer history. If you were going to pick it out—this a really hard question but—must see films to throw your money, your time and your attention and care at during LGBT History Month. What would they be?
JENNI Let’s see. Well, one of my favorite films that I would start With would be Yance Ford’s Strong Island which is on Netflix. We talked about Tongues Untied and Strong Island is very much in the tradition of Tongues Untied, very innovative film. Yance Ford is a trans guy director who’s—the film itself isn’t necessarily about being queer, it’s a story about his brother who died at the hands of the police. And it’s beautifully constructed, innovative, really innovative film. What else? Well, a film called Disclosure that’s also on Netflix that looks at the history of trans representation on screen. And I helped a little bit with, I was one of the consulting producers on it. Amazing, amazing film.
GEMMA Do you want to talk about The Celluloid Closet even though it’s not recent?
JENNI I would definitely watch The Celluloid Closet. It’s a great film to watch to build your queue of other movies that you want to watch. And it’s an incredible overview of looking at the history of representation of LGBT characters on screen. It’s based on the book The Celluloid Closet that was written by Vito Russo in the 1980s. And Vito was one of my mentors, one of my most important mentors as a queer film history person. And yeah, The Celluloid Closet it is a definitely a good one. What else? Queer film history. Well, go look at my Letterboxd lists. [Jenni & Gemma laugh] I have a bunch of really, I think, pretty great lists including 101 must see movies for lesbians. [Gemma laughs] Which there’s not actually 101 movies on there yet. [Jenni laughs] There will be someday. I’m being aspirational. But watch anything on that list. I also have a really great list of good LGBT movies on Tubi. Tubi.com. Which is free, ad supported.
SLIM All of those have been added now to my watchlist.
GEMMA And then of course, we just have to get a development deal for D.E.B.S. the series and we’re in business.
[The Letterboxd Show theme music Vampiros Dancoteque by Moniker fades in, plays alone, fades down]
SLIM Thanks so much for listening to The Letterbox Show and thanks to our guest this episode Jenni Olson. You can follow Slim—that’s me—Gemma and our HQ page on Letterboxd using the links in our episode notes Thanks to our crew, composing dynamos, Moniker for the theme music Vampiros Dancoteque.
GEMMA Thanks to Jack for the facts. Thanks to our booker, Linda Moulton for looking after our guests and to Sophie Shin for the episode transcript. And to you for listening. The Letterboxd Show is a TAPEDECK production. If you’re enjoying the show and have guest ideas, be sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, like Danny Wiser did. Here’s his review: “Fun hosts, great guest discussion and a never ending list of movies to talk about.” Wait, is that your Danny? [Slim laughs]
SLIM No, that’s not my Danny. But that was a five star review in my opinion.
GEMMA That was beautiful. And that’s the show. Hey, Slim.
GEMMA Let’s just pretend that we’re in Barcelona, and you’re in art school, and I’m renting sailboats to tourists and no one’s a superhero and no one’s a villain and we’re just us. [Slim laughs]
SLIM Your most obscure outro yet.
[clip of Vertigo plays]
MADELINE You’re so kind. It’s a formal thank you note and a great big apology.
SCOTTIE Well, you’ve nothing to apologize for.
MADELINE Oh yes I do. The whole thing must have been so embarrassing.
SCOTTIE Not at all, I enjoyed it, talking to you.
MADELINE Well uh, I enjoy talking to you.
[clip of Vertigo ends]
[TAPEDECK bumper plays] This is a TAPEDECK podcast.