In 2005's The Joy of Life, a poignant personal history of the Golden Gate Bridge as suicide landmark, filmmaker and LGBT cinema historian Jenni Olson seemed to reach the apotheosis of a deceptively simple experimental cinema technique: static shots of mostly unpeopled urban spaces, arranged in mesmerizing sequence and overlaid with disembodied yet deeply intimate voice-over narration.
That film still feels like one of the essential texts of San Francisco cinema. But Olson and the method she's so finely honed -- by now a familiar recipe, in lesser artists' hands, for pretentious rubbish -- are by no means exhausted. To wit: her most recent short, 575 Castro Street, with which Olson traveled to the '09 Sundance Film Festival.
In 575 Castro Street's case, the empty urban space is the inside of the Castro Camera Store, recreated at that address as a set for Gus Van Sant's momentous biopic, Milk. The narration, of sorts, is a careful abridgement of the November, 1977, audiotape Harvey Milk made "to be played only in the event of my death by assassination."
These words and images will be familiar to anyone who's seen even the trailers of Milk, for which Sean Penn's performance of that prescient recording serves as a narrative bracket. (It also includes the slain gay rights hero's still-rousing slogan, "You gotta give 'em hope.") But Olson's arrangement, lasting all of seven minutes, is not redundant; it's reinvigorating.
The film has only four shots. Its only action, per se, comes from spills of light and shadow kicked up by passing cars on the street outside. But because Olson is such a keen, open-hearted noticer, equally attuned to verbal and visual lyricism, stasis is precisely what she avoids. Her compositions exude the elegance and fortitude warranted by their duty as selected echo chambers for Harvey Milk's official last words.
575 Castro Street doesn't strain for grandeur and doesn't need to; the power comes from resonant simplicity. It plays like a memory-infused dream, in which all that's fully palpable is a feeling of absence, the residue of a human soul.
What's more, the hauntedness goes many-layers deep -- not just because the film records an actual place, recreated in its own image explicitly for the purpose of fictively commemorative cinematography, but because, as an introductory title card explains, 575 Castro Street shares some formal DNA with the short, experimental queer-cinema ditties that once went to Harvey Milk's Castro Camera Store for processing.
And so it works on the heart and on the mind; as a companion to Van Sant's Milk and an extension of Olson's The Joy of Life; as a fleeting beauty and an enduring one.
Watch 575 Castro Street at 575castrostreet.blogspot.com.