575 Castro St.
Shot on the set of Focus Features MILK, director Jenni Olson effectively employs archival recordings of Harvey Milk describing the events he would like to take place in the event of his assassination.
The San Francisco Gay Film Festival came into existence in February 1977 when a self-described “ragtag bunch of hippie fag” filmmakers got together and projected their Super8 short films on a bed sheet at San Francisco’s old Gay Community Center. For its first few years the festival showcased the modest Super8 imaginings of such prolific but obscure gay filmmakers as David Waggoner, Ric Mears and Wayne Smolen, as well as festival founders Marc Huestis and Dan Nicolletta.
Many of these films explored gay themes, but a good percentage of the work (like many other experimental films of the era) focused on simple light and motion studies.
The visuals of 575 Castro St. (the play of light and shadow upon the walls of the Castro Camera set for Gus Van Sant’s Milk) hearken back to those gay short films of the ‘70s: The films that passed through Harvey Milk’s hands to be processed and developed. The films that inaugurated an event that would grow to become not just the largest LGBT film festival on the planet, but a media arts non-profit dedicated to serving filmmakers and audiences in myriad ways.
One of the first films I got to see when I attended my first Frameline festival in 1989 (looking for films to curate for my queer film series in Minneapolis) was Warren Sonbert’s Friendly Witness. That same year I also got to see my first queer experimental works by filmmakers like Su Friedrich, Abigail Child, Barbara Hammer and Ulrike Ottinger.
These are the cinematic visions that have shaped and sparked my own vision — first as a curator, and then as a filmmaker myself. It is fitting that the style of 575 Castro St. should match the style of the pioneering gay films that Harvey Milk helped to develop (in all the meanings of that word).
For me, the joy of my films is found in the poetry of the static image —in the experience of time passing on film, undistracted by plot, actors, dialogue and other narrative conventions. An internal drama is evoked in the sensitivities of each viewer who is open to the subtleties of these mundane shots that are almost bereft of movement and sound. So quiet, so still. All the better to showcase the range of emotions evoked by Harvey Milk’s words.
The audio track is an edited down version of the 13-minute audio-cassette that Harvey Milk recorded in his camera shop on the evening of Friday, November 18, 1977 (a few weeks after his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which made him the first openly gay elected official in America). Labeled simply: “In-Case” the tape was to be played, “in the event of my death by assassination.”
A note about the sound quality
In our final sound mix (on June 20th, the day after Opening Night of the 2008 San Francisco LGBT Film Festival) my sound guru Jim Lively diligently removed as many of the clicks and squeaks and scratches as he could from Harvey’s tape. The man was an inspiring orator, but he really didn’t seem to know the first thing about how to hold a microphone. Just as well – I think the noises provide a vivid sense of Harvey’s physical presence in that room. There is even one point during the desk shot where we hear the creaking of his chair (like he is pushing his chair back from behind the desk).
Jenni Olson is director of e-commerce at WolfeVideo.com andis one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history. Her debut feature film, The Joy of Life world premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film. Jenni established the queer movie database, PopcornQ (at PlanetOut.com) and launched the first showcase for LGBT streaming media in 1995, the PlanetOut Online Cinema as well as founding the PlanetOut Short Movie Awards in 2000. As a film collector and archivist Jenni’s historical movie trailer programs (including the ever-popular: Homo Promo) have been shown at film festivals around the world. Jenni has written extensively about LGBT film since. Her coffee table tome, The Queer Movie Poster Book, was a 2005 Lambda Literary Award nominee. Jenni serves as an advisor to many filmmakers on a variety of projects, and on the advisory board of Outfest’s Legacy Project for LGBT film preservation. She is currently in development on a new feature, Get Me Guinevere Turner.