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The Films of Jensen Rufe
by Jon Olsen

While attending graduate school at Humboldt State University, Jensen Rufe and collaborator Steve Love created one of the most talked about local films in recent history.

Orick, CA, USA.

Orick is a tiny little town which straddles the 101 about midway between Trinidad and Klamath. Its residents primarily earn their income by surf-fishing and selling burl art to passing tourists (there are 12 burl art gift shops squeezed into the short stretch of highway that is Orick's Main Street). The tourists who stop here are mostly RV adventurers who enjoy overnight camping on a nearby stretch of beach, which is also right alongside the highway.

As the film opens, however, we find there is trouble in paradise. The National Park Service ("Big Park" to the locals) is trying to ban vehicles and overnight campers from the beach, which effectively prohibits surf-fishing and discourages the tourists from stopping in town. What begins as an engaging portrait of an eccentric northern Californian small town rapidly shifts into a document of people struggling against bureaucratic oppression to hang on to their homes and livelihoods. It's quirky and funny, but at the same time it leaves you feeling depressed. It makes you acutely aware of our government's power to bend you over a stump and plunge a broomstick into your proverbial rectum. It's fucking brilliant.
(48 minutes, 2001)

Jensen Rufe is also the creative force behind three other documentaries:

In The Ugliest Fountain in the World (Without a Doubt), the only film in his body of work shot on film and in black and white, Rufe is on a personal crusade to improve or remove the ugly, barely functioning fountain in the HSU Art quad. After hitting the campus library newspaper archives, the filmmaker learns that this structure was originally a flower planter before university movers and shakers decided (for no particular reason, apparently) to install a hoopty set of pipes and sprinklers, thus converting it into a fountain. Subsequent decades of student press editorials reveal that the fountain has always been loathed and ridiculed.
Rufe organizes a well publisized, but poorly attended rally protesting the fountain's existence, which leads to a meeting with (then) HSU president, Alistair McCrone. McCrone states repeatedly that he'd be "delighted" if something were done about the fountain, and forecasts decisive action within "a year or a year and a half" - but of course nothing is ever done. By the film's end, and to this day, despite President McCrone's verbal commitment, the hideous thing lives on. Like Orick, this short , but sweet film is testimony to the all too frequent ineffectiveness of grass roots movements trying to change our world for the better.
(14 minutes, 1998)

In Search of the Famous Hoosier Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwich, again in collaboration with Steve Love, is an homage to an enormous sandwich. I'm talking fucking BIG: a slab of breaded pork 12 to 18 inches in diameter, sandwiched between two halves of a burger bun - a clash of proportions remiscent of a tiny, tiny dog attempting to copulate with a big, big dog. This protein and fat rich delicacy is only found in Rufe's home state of Indiana. I do not recommend you watch this movie on an empty stomach. I am not the world's biggest pork fan, but shortly after popping the tape in my VCR, my saliva glands were dripping like a leaky faucet.
(15 minutes, 27 seconds, 1998)

The Fuse (a Rock and Roll Documentary). Ah, The Fuse... I was not familiar with this mod punk band, nor its songs, before viewing this documentary. I am actually quite an ignoramus when it comes to punk music. At first glance, F-1, F-2, F-3 and F-4, the four all-male members of The Fuse seem like total morons, esecially when they speak-or ramble rather-philosophically. They are so deep, they're not. If you know what I mean... But the more I listened to them, the funnier they got. Until I began to suspect they were actually comic geniuses. Maybe unintentionally.
"The Fuse and Booze" is a phrase you'll hear them utter again and again. These guys love their liquor. For one of the film's interview sessions, they sit on some bleachers and swallow crate after crate of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Hefty bottles of hard alcohol are guzzled prior to shows. "Sober is for practice!" the band members proclaim, and by the time their set begins these jokers are good and tanked. Spectators who get too close are liable to be biffed by a musical instrument, accidentally on purpose. The drummer will swing his sticks extra far if he sees an opportunity to beam someone upside the head. In fact, half the charm of these shows is watching these plastered musicians try to cause injury to anyone within reach.
"What we lack in talent, we make up for in style," F-1 explains, ironing his white-collared shirt backstage. "Style is substance!"
I don't know quite what to make of this band. But by the end of Jensen Rufe's movie, I found them oddly endearing. I know I probably seem condescending when I say that. So, I'm a square. Fuck you too. But these guys came into my home (via the magic of video) and I enjoyed their company. Thank you, Mr. Rufe.
(24 minutes, 2002)

Departing from the world of documentary film, The Cutters: "Out Tonight" is one of Rufe's ventures into the world of music video. It's one of those music videos where most of the footage is different angles of the band performing live. There are many, many star-wipes. The best bits are shots of band members, or sometimes people in the audience, filmed in night-vision so their eyes look like they're glowing, and tinted red. A tiny caption appears on these shots: SATAN. For some reason this is really, really funny - to me, at any rate.

These movies can be rented at Video Experience and are essential viewing for anyone who resides in Humboldt County. Orick and The Ugliest Fountain in the World are two of my favorite documentaries ever. Jensen Rufe is a swell guy, and I got to interview him by email not too long ago:


Jon Olsen: An interview has to start somewhere, so...where are you from?

Jensen Rufe: My family is from Indiana. I grew up there and in Chicago, then moved out to California at age 9. Been living here ever since.

JO: What got you interested in filmmaking? How old were you when you first became conscious of such an interest?

JR: I've always been interested in art, particularly media-type art...magazines, videos, film, music. Music is probably my first love, and will probably be my last love. But in general, media-related art is always what I've been most attracted to, which is why I majored in Mass Communications at UCLA. But it wasn't until the tail end of my time there that I took a documentary class, and I fell for that art form. Coming up to Humboldt to major in film for my Master's degree was a good way to learn that craft. And since then, I've really tried to absorb every aspect of what goes into making an interesting documentary or non-fiction piece of film or video art.

JO: How did you come to HSU?

JR: I applied to six graduate schools for film. I sent applications to all the "Big Boys" such as USC, NYU, UCLA, etc. And a friend told me: "Our friend Paolo Davanzo is in graduate school at Humboldt State and loves it. You should apply there." Well, as it turns out and as fate would have it, I applied there, and HSU was the only school that accepted me. Paolo has turned out to be one of my best friends (in fact, we currently play in a band together in Los Angeles. We're called The Natural Lights and will probably be in Arcata 4th of July weekend). And, of course, HSU turned out to be the perfect place to go to school, thanks in large part to some great instructors and fellow students.

JO: What motivated you to become a documentary filmmaker?

JR: A History of Documentary class at UCLA (where I did my undergraduate college) really sparked my interest and made me realize that documentaries don't have to be boring; they can be informative and entertaining at the same time, which was something I never realized. I had always viewed documentaries as no more than a "boring" and "informational" and "educational" form of media.

JO: Can you name any specific documentaries that inspired you?

JR: Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers, Don't Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker, Roger and Me by Michael Moore, and Sherman's March by Ross McElwee were a few of the movies from that class which stood out.

JO: What attracts you to your films' subjects?

JR: Well, I guess I first must initially find the subject interesting, then I have to figure out if there's a way to make the audience find that subject interesting, as well. Because if only I find it interesting, people won't like the film, and I genuinely want people to like my movies.

JO: Do you ever feel like you have so many ideas for subject material that it's hard to choose what project to focus on?

JR: Lots of ideas is a good thing, as long as you can stop and focus on one. More so, lately, I feel like I don't have enough of my own time to work on those ideas. I'm too busy with work.

JO: Do you like to work on one film at a time, or do you prefer to have more than one pot boiling?

JR: I don't mind having two projects going on at once. I think it's kind of a good thing actually, because if you get sick of one project, you can move over to the other.

JO: Do you work on your films that way?

JR: I was working on the fountain and tenderloin at the same time (shot the fountain in the Spring of '98, shot the tenderloin in the Summer of '98, edited the fountain in the fall of '98 and edited the tenderloin in the early winter of '98). I would work on one for a bit, then put it away for awhile, and I actually liked that feeling very much. I think it's a good idea to have your fingers in two pies at once, because if you get sick of one or hit a brick wall in the editing process (which I often do), then you can ditch it for a bit and dive head first into the other project.

JO: Why documentaries and not narrative films?

JR: Narratives involve trying to coax a "performance" out of an actor, which is something I have no experience with. I think I'd be pretty good at it--having done a little bit of narrative directing for class projects at HSU--but thus far, the opportunity to direct a narrative film has never presented itself.

JO: Do you have any desire to eventually work in the narrative medium?

JR: Yes, although it's more out of curiosity than due to an overwhelming desire to enter that world.

JO: My knowledge of your work includes: Orick, Ugliest Fountain in the World, Famous Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwich, The Fuse, and that Cutters music video. Have you made any films besides those, before or since?

JR: I did a Sin Men video, which turned out pretty good--using the "wrapped around your finger" technique of having the band lip sync to a very, very sped up version of the song, then slowing the tape down to the normal speed so that their lips move properly in sync to the music, but while in slow motion!

JO: What inspired you to make Orick?

JR: Initially, we were attracted to the strangeness of the town; it is sort of a Twin Peaksy town, when you look at it. So our original intent was to make a slice-of-life documentary about this strange town, but ultimately, it became more about their battle against "The Park," because that's all the Orick townspeople talk about.

JO: Sandwich?

JR: I always loved that sandwich and was also intrigued by my inability to find it anywhere outside of the Indiana borders. So, I thought it would make for an interesting documentary to go back and meet the odd Hoosier people who purvey the sandwich.

JO: The Fuse?

JR: I saw them play a couple times live after we moved back down here to L.A., and I found them very interesting. I knew they would be compelling subjects, so I approached them as a complete stranger and asked them if they'd be interested in having someone do a documentary about them, and they agreed. Even before I saw them, I knew that my next movie was going to be music-related, because I would love to make music documentaries for a living.

JO: Ugliest Fountain?

JR: I think my dad somewhat inspired that one. He was flabbergasted that such an ugly fountain could exist on our campus art quad (compared to a very lovely fountain at his Alma Mater, Indiana), and soon after he made fun of our fountain, I decided to tackle its history and make a movie about it and my efforts to get the fountain destroyed or renovated.

JO: As far as you know, did (former HSU President) Alistair McCrone ever see The Ugliest Fountain in the World after it was finished? Did he have any comments about it?

JR: While I was making the film, he used to "check in" every now and then to inquire about receiving a copy. After I finally finished it and had sent a copy to him, he stopped calling and never offered any feedback. I presume he didn't like it.

JO: Ugliest Fountain is the only documentary of yours that was shot on film instead of video. What film gauge was it shot on? 16 or Super8?

JR: 16mm black and white negative film. It was edited the old fashioned way--on a film flatbed editing system.

JO: What are your thoughts on the whole "film vs. video" debate?

JR: Video is too cheap to even warrant a debate; sure, film looks better, but you can do videos for hundreds of dollars. You can't do sync sound films for anything less than thousands of dollars. Case closed (unless you're rich and can afford film).

JO: Does it bother you at all that the Humboldt International Film Festival doesn't accept video work?

JR: No. That's kind of the "charm" of Humboldt's film program...that they still emphasize film the old fashioned way. However, for the "Local Filmmakers Night," which is a fund-raiser held at the Minor Theatre for the Humboldt International Film Festival, they might think about accepting and screening videos.

JO: Where are these films available besides Video Experience in Humboldt County? Can they be rented anywhere else? Can they be purchased anywhere?

JR: They can be rented and/or purchased at Video Experience in Arcata and Eureka, and if Video Experience is out of them, people can email me for copies at jensenfilms@aol.com or jensenfilms@adelphia.net (I'm temporarily out of Orick videos-- we're hoping soon to have a DVD of Orick).

JO: Have your films been sent to festivals?

JR: Yes, they've done pretty well at festivals, particularly the fountain and sandwich movies, which basically paid for themselves from the award money I recieved. And through the festival circuit, various PBS affiliates purchased the rights to broadcast them, which also put a little bit of very welcome money into my wallet.

JO: Have any of your films found distribution of any kind? (Not counting Humboldt video stores of course.)

JR: Nope. I've tried my damndest to get them distributed, but have never been able to. Perhaps once I get them all onto a DVD, it will become more likely that I can find someone to "put them out there," so to speak.

JO: At least two of your films (Orick and Tenderloin Sandwich) were done in collaboration with Steve Love. Tell me a bit about him.

JR: Steve was a fellow graduate at HSU, and through the years we became very good friends. We have similar senses of humor and spend much of our time together laughing hysterically at each other's jokes, and that makes for a pretty good collaborative team. In fact, Steve was just the Best Man at my Vegas wedding. He lives in Torrance, CA and works as a substitute teacher while working various freelance jobs in the film and TV industry.

JO: I understand you became the Humboldt County Film Commissioner in 1999, and were, for a time, responsible for attracting the film industry to Humboldt.

JR: I worked for the Humboldt Convention and Visitors Bureau for about three very enjoyable years as their Film Commissioner. Basically, each day, I worked with location scouts and producers to either encourage them to come up and shoot in Humboldt, or once they had decided to come up, to assist them to make sure they had maps, directions, production guides and access to the many crewmembers and resources Eureka and Humboldt has to offer. Most of the film business we attracted was in the form of commercials, although we did get a few TV shows and films along the way, including Castlerock's The Majestic, which utterly tanked at the box office (it was the biggest financial flop of 2001. Ouch!). Not our fault!

JO: Do you think attracting film industry dollars could end up keeping Humboldt's dwindling economy alive, or at least circling the drain a little longer?

JR: You know, someone or some entity in Humboldt with some money should have purchased Samoa or Bridgeville (when they were on the market) and turned them into full-time film friendly locations. That would have sparked some Hollywood activity up North to help jump-start the local economy, I'll bet.

JO: What kind of work are you doing today?

JR: I've been moving from show to show as an editor, most recently USA Network's stab at American Idol, a country music version of Idol called Nashville Star. I traveled around the U.S.A. for a few months recording the raw material, then ended up in Nashvile for a month as an editor.

JO: How did you graduate from student films to industry grunt work?

JR: Basically, it's not too hard to get grunt work, since there are so many jobs in Los Angeles. It's the process of getting a good job which is much harder, and I'm not sure I'm there yet.

JO: Have you had time, lately, to work on personal projects? Has personal work become more challenging?

JR: Steve and I are working on a travelogue style TV pilot, which uses unused footage from our Orick movie and Tenderloin project. These should be done in a few months. With so much time devoted to work, I'm finding it a lot harder to work on my own projects. But basically, Steve and I are hoping to be able to do what we've done as amateurs, but on a professional level...sort of like a Gen X Charles Kuralt type show which celebrates the underbelly of fringe America. The show is tentatively titled Steve and Jensen's America. We'll see what happens with that.

JO: What's in your immediate future?

JR: Very, very good question.

JO: Is there a proverbial mountain peak you hope to reach, or do you simply want to go for an interesting ride through life?

JR: So far, I do these documentaries on my own, pretty much out of my own pocket. If I could do these things professionally, that would be the proverbial "mountain peak." Unfortunately for me, I'm one of many hundreds of thousands of people down here in Los Angeles who wants to do the same thing, so it's going to take some time. We'll see...