Jenni Olson’s latest work is an ode to nostalgia and memory told through the form of a gradually digressive essay film about a road. That’s a reductive way to put it, but The Royal Road springs from the narrative allure of California’s El Camino Real, which then serves as the visual anchor for a multi-faceted monologue in which Olson talks through the history of San Francisco and California, the impact that cinema has had on the formation and confirmation of her sexual identity and, as she puts it, “the quest for unattainable women.” The film, five years in the making and drawn from 16mm film footage shot by Olson as far back as 1997, passes by with a strangely alluring sense of timelessness. At one point Olson reflects on how capturing the landscape on film somehow preserves it, time in amber, but the presentation of The Royal Road eschews temporality; both the film’s content and presentation reflect a rejection of digital cultures and a focus on grappling with the real and fictive past.
The film’s title comes from the anglicised name for El Camino Real, a historic road in California that today, divvied up into a series of highways, connects San Diego and San Francisco, but which supposedly comes from the path of Franciscan missionaries across the state, with over 20 Spanish missions dotted along the modern route. The history of the road, though, is one of collective cultural ignorance. The deification of figures like Fr. Junípero Serra in Californian history acts to distract from a history of colonization, genocide and war. The popularity of the road today is emblematic of the modern desire to commodify the past; the markers dotted on highways were part of automobile club advertising campaigns at the turn of the 20th century.1 The road, at least initially, serves as the setting for the first story in The Royal Road, as Olson’s narration talks through the act of travelling from San Francisco to the doorstep of a woman in Los Angeles. Like a more sunny (and less absurd) My Winnipeg, individual anxiety is wrapped up in the tangible form of film, and the journey to this woman is interrupted by darting thoughts about cinema and history.
Visually indebted to the work of James Benning, the film appears as a queer variation on his 2004 feature Los, which features nothing but two-and-a-half minute static shots of the Los Angeles landscape. The Royal Road lacks Benning’s sense of duration and precision, but that’s because Olson’s focus is on the rhythm of an organic-seeming verbal narrative.2 The actual text being read out is carefully crafted prose, an intimate yet broadly affecting yearning for connection disguised as authorial confession. In reality, Olson has a wife (LGBT rights advocate Julie Dorf) and two daughters, yet the vividly realised words spoken wonderfully blur the line between reality and fiction. The third chapter in the film plays off of this idea of identity as both individual and collective, titled “The Story of My Life”, it falls after two structured stories about personal lust and affection, but rather than be an autobiographical account of the director’s life, the title is in fact a reference to Giacomo Casanova’s memoir of the same name – though a memoir which too serves as an account of a litany of lovers.
Like Los, the landscape here, shot marvelously by cinematographer Sophie Constantinou, is indicative of intimate moments within wider chaos, pockets of reserved solitude in which no people can be seen. Dawn Logsdon’s editing crafts an enigmatic relationship between voice and image, never cutting away in the middle of a thought, each paragraph tethered to its frame, whether complementing or contrasting imagery. The silent shots, though, which punctuate the film and bookend some of the chapters, are some of the best in the film, this mode of contrast something distinctly different from Benning’s work. The first story in the film ends on a sudden shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, that indelible image acting not only as a reference to Olson’s previous film, The Joy of Life, which dealt in part with suicide on the bridge, but also as a piece of punctuation in the narrative of unfulfilled love – in the background of this shot, a ship sails on by.
The film’s historical and architectural travelogue is less Los Angeles Plays Itself than Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town, sharing that film’s damning indictment of American expansionism alongside a visual exploration of the fruits of that expansion. Olson’s focus on history is more blunt, and perhaps more effective; a sudden visual shift to a map of the United States detailing the formation of the country and the US-Mexican war of 1846-1848 is a far cry from the romantic regrets detailed in previous sequences yet it underlines our own collective complacency in cherishing nostalgic fiction over interrogated recollection.3 That noted, Olson spends a compelling portion of the film arguing in defense of nostalgia, a succinct rebuttal to a quoted Tony Kushner lecture, wherein nostalgia serves as a tool for engaging with the physical world in a highly digital environment.
Olson’s background as a film archivist and researcher gives weight to her nuanced exploration of the nostalgic allure of cinema on people and places.4 The film opens with shots of the streets of Hollywood, and Olson’s voiceover recalls the opening moments of Billy Wilder’s iconic Sunset Boulevard, moving from Hollywood the location to Hollywood the idea, establishing the importance of film to her own sexual identity. She remarks on how she emulated her favourite actors in films to assume a “borrowed masculine persona” and that “experiencing myself as a fictional character has been a mode of survival ever since.” Whilst citing the importance of these films, she refrains from inserting clips from any of the films referenced nor ever directly re-enacting a shot. When discussing Shirley MacLaine’s climactic coming out speech in The Children’s Hour, the visual focus isn’t directed to that film but rather to a shot of a motel; the impetus in discussing William Wyler’s film came from stumbling onto it on a cable channel in a motel room. This approach puts an emphasis on personal reflections on cinema, something that reaches a high point when Olson talks through Vertigo.
Even on a surface level, a film which uses San Francisco as a basis for exploring identity and memory is going to draw parallels to Hitchcock’s 1958 classic. Olson makes the link overt, initially as the verbal punchline to the film’s first askew shot – low angle, looking up at a green-tinted building – and then again when noting that whilst the trees on a city street have changed, the El Camino Real marker bell looks the same as it did when Hitchcock shot it nearly 60 years earlier. His tale of nostalgia and memory found long-lasting relevance through its beguiling ability to channel the cultural heritage of the city, with an identity formed in part through acceptance of a fiction.5 Whilst the focus on the film is somewhat intense, Olson cleverly restrains from making Vertigo a thematic urtext – citing Proust’s own Madeleine and clearly tethering it once more to a personal analysis of identity and self-reflection.
The film’s coda has Olson describe her intention for the film over a stunningly beautiful shot of the San Francisco Bay, “I want to tell you a story about love and loss and San Francisco that reveals more about me than I ever expected to say.” Like Scottie drawn to Madeleine, and Olson drawn to their San Francisco-set tale, so too does the viewer of The Royal Road find themselves gradually captivated by a subtly complex exploration of image and identity. Whatever Olson expected to say, it’s clear that through her revealing and poignant feature she’s managed to say a great deal.
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