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'Joy of Life' makes the ordinary extraordinary

Once in a while a smart artist has an idea for a project that, when explained, sounds pretty boring. But in the viewing, it's actually quite intoxicating.

Jenni Olson's ''The Joy of Life" doesn't seem like much. The director just sits her movie camera in front of various San Francisco locales and lets it roll. Someone reads Olson's writings on lesbian relationships and on Frank Capra. She tosses in audio of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reciting his poem ''The Changing Light" and some information about suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge, then says, ''That's a wrap."

From these elements, the hourlong film constructs a meditation on gender, the ephemeral nature of lust, and the sheer importance of staying alive.

Opening today at the Museum of Fine Arts, ''The Joy of Life" is a concept piece with a heart and a soul. It's warm, but also eccentric: Olson has the drag king and performance artist Harriet ''Harry" Dodge narrate the film, using text meant to sound like diary entries (if they're not actually the real thing). The contents, invariably, are about sex: crushes, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, speculative fantasies, acts, positions, locations, feelings (mixed and hurt), and uncertainty about whether her -- the narrator's -- masculinity is convincing or even necessary. (Dodge sounds suitably manly.)

While the narrator goes on to fill us in on the story of the Amazons, the tortured back story of Capra's ''Meet John Doe," and the unintended use of the Golden Gate Bridge, Olson's camera lingers on the city's vistas: alluring intersections, Coit Tower, San Francisco Bay, rarely visited industrial areas. Sites that are nothing to look at when passed on the street achieve a surprising glory when Olson reframes them. Her ''John Doe" portion skeptically explains the film's history as a Christian allegory, and suddenly the telephone poles, photographed amid church steeples, take on a new meaning: They look like decapitated crosses.

The images work their way into our psyches. When Olson blacks out the screen and that recording of Ferlinghetti's ethereal ode to San Francisco gets under way, the visual montage is still playing in our heads.

''The Joy of Life" is sharing a double bill with ''Who's the Top," Jennie Livingston's follow-up (of sorts) to her landmark 1990 drag documentary, ''Paris Is Burning." The film runs less than half an hour, and it feels experimental. But what an experiment! Her movie centers on a woman and the philosophical kinks in her gay relationships. Like Olson's movie, it's a lot less heady than it sounds. It's actually fun. The film doubles as a musical whose production numbers are more exuberant than anything in ''Rent."

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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