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Blue Diary / Memento Mori / Desert Hearts

Desert Hearts
March 28, 2022 - 7:30 pm
In-person: 
filmmakers Jim Hubbard and Jenni Olson, moderated by Kirsten Schaffer, Executive Director of Women in Film.

Pictured above: Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch, 1986)

The Archive has postponed all January in-person screenings in consideration of the current COVID-19 surge. This program has been rescheduled to Monday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m. We appreciate your understanding and support as we plan for a safer start to 2022.


Blue Diary

1998

In Jenni Olson’s elegiac short film, an anonymous diarist recounts her unrequited attraction to a heterosexual woman following a “fluke” one night stand. "In the grand scheme of things,” the narrator intones, “being alone seems slightly preferable to being around people—who make me feel even more self-loathing, insecurity, and dysphoria.” While Olson’s frame is virtually devoid of people, it is never impersonal. Filmed in the late 1990s on the verge of the first dot-com boom, a sequence of industrial back alleys, busy intersections, residential neighborhoods and grey concrete-and-steel views of the Bay (photographed by artist and author William E. Jones) conveys an intimate familiarity with the more workaday side of San Francisco’s signature urban patchwork, as queer longing becomes increasingly inseparable from the built environment. With its cloth-bound title cards, immobile shots of cars, trains and overhead wires, and shared resignation in the face of departure and loss, Olson’s film loosely echoes Ozu’s late works (as well, perhaps, in its frustration over unrealized same-sex desire), while the “blue” of the film’s title suggests both melancholic mood and libidinal fascination.

Olson (b. 1962) would continue to develop her unique landscape documentary/cinematic essay style in subsequent feature-length documentaries, The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015), further exploring the interconnectedness of place, time and lesbian identity, albeit through a more openly autobiographical lens, as well as in her short piece 575 Castro St. (2009), filmed in the reconstruction of Harvey Milk’s camera store used as a shooting location for Gus Van Sant’s biopic of the fallen gay rights activist and politician. For Olson, a preservationist and historian of queer cinema, the camera’s ability to capture and excavate submerged memory—however imperfectly—remains a source of optimism. While gently mournful of the inability to completely halt the passage of time, Blue Diary captures the rhythms, vistas and emotional topography of a city teetering on the brink of irreversible change.

Brendan Lucas

DCP, color, 6 min. Director: Jenni Olson. Screenwriter: Jenni Olson. With: Silas Howard.

Memento Mori

1995

Activist, archivist, curator, documentarian and filmmaker extraordinaire, Jim Hubbard (b. 1951) is a central figure in the vital documentation and dissemination of knowledge and truth regarding political indifference to the AIDS crisis and the resulting devastating human toll. Through the creation of the ACT UP Oral History Project (which he co-founded with Sarah Schulman in 2001), Hubbard has worked tirelessly for decades toward creating an archival legacy of recorded testimony that has allowed people with AIDS to speak for themselves. As a director and co-producer, Hubbard’s 2012 feature documentary, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP is an essential companion document that tracks the development of the AIDS activist movement and its members’ actions to save lives amid a climate of criminal government neglect and gross societal prejudice. The acclaimed work has screened at over 150 film festivals and museums worldwide and will continue to be utilized for decades to come in the teaching of this tragic moment in history.

Winner of the Best Short Film at the Hamburg Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 1995, Hubbard’s highly personal experimental work, Memento Mori, is a moving, queer mediation that individualizes the immeasurable collective trauma left in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Stylistically, Hubbard powerfully departs from the small film gauge formats that dominate his documentary work, instead utilizing widescreen Cinemascope that serves to illuminate the enormous scale of loss for each individual that has perished. Through the artful juxtaposition of universal imagery of death and ritual, deliberate close-ups of a human skull to the scattering of ashes, Hubbard’s dream-like elegy transports the viewer to a deep, universal state-of-consciousness that anyone that has lost a loved one will instantly recognize. The resulting depth of emotion and empathy serves as both a mournful prayer and an indelible filmic monument to the dead.

Mark Quigley

16mm, color, 16 min. Director: Jim Hubbard.

Preservation funded by Criterion, Outfest, and the Sundance Institute

Desert Hearts

1986

Two lonely, complex women—Vivian, the cautious professor (Helen Shaver), and Cay, the impulsive ranch hand (Patricia Charbonneau)—fall in love against the dusty-pink, quickie-divorce backdrop of 1950s Reno, Nevada. Their clumsy, honest yearning asserts that queer women have always existed, and they’re just as emotionally compromised as they’ve ever been.

An adaptation from Jane Rule’s 1964 novel, Desert of the Heart, director Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts came into being amidst her relief and fascination with a queer female-centric story that didn’t find its emotional peak in “a bisexual love triangle,” or, more bleakly, suicide. Released five years before Thelma and Louise provoked controversy over its lesbian subtext, Deitch overtly explores female intimacy and the conflicting desires for love and safety in a dangerously unfriendly world.

With Robert Elswit’s by-turn sweeping and intimate camera that gives Cay and Vivian a wide berth on the vintage roadster-populated streets of Reno, and follows them with lingering, steamy close-ups behind closed doors, Deitch (b. 1945) portrays the collateral damage the women face in order to live free from societal restrictions. Natalie Cooper’s script, along with Charbonneau and Shaver’s chemistry and a lingering, Patsy Cline-infused score, completes Deitch’s portrait about choice, precariousness, and the courage to find out what the next 20 minutes might mean for new love.

Although its initial release was met with incredibly lukewarm critical reception from major publications, and promotion for the film was often done by Deitch herself, the film surpassed box office expectations—amidst queer feminist critical speculation that this was a “radical” and a “groundbreaking” film for its positive outcome after displaying graphic, but not overtly sexualized or demonized, queer female intimacy. With Desert Hearts, Deitch created a new balance of agency in film, both in narrative romance and in the means of film production—one that is still offset by creators who stumble into the pit of Dead Lesbian Syndrome.

Shayna Warner

DCP, color, 80 min. Director: Donna Deitch. Based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule. Screenwriter: Natalie Cooper. With: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley.