Jenni Olson’s purview is far-reaching. A LGBTI film historian, curator, and author, Olson’s experimental cinematic work is as comprehensive as the rest of her career. Her latest film, The Royal Road, is a poetic film essay, shot on 16mm, that muses on a myriad of topics – love, queer identity, nostalgia, California and Hitchcock’s Vertigo – all set against long takes of Olson’s much loved hometown of San Francisco.
The Royal Road screens at Golden Age Cinema on March 2, as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival. The film is co-presented by 4:3.
So much contemplative ground is covered in The Royal Road – a physical journey, as well as the history of the Californian landscape, all imbued with a very personal narration, and yet it feels so expansive in the cinema, a real feat. I’d like to ask you first about the nature of that narrative. Is the text your starting point, and how do you develop it with the imagery?
Thanks for your very kind words about the film. I have always envisioned it as both an internal and an external journey — which is achieved simultaneously by the landscape imagery and the internal first-person monologue. Sometimes they have an actual convergence (where the viewer sees what I’m talking about) and other times the connection is much more indirect and poetic. I am generally writing and shooting at the same time — partly out of necessity since it takes many years to make my films amidst the many other things I’m doing (full time job, wife and kids, etc.). One example of my process would be the first part of the whole Vertigo section where I have a shot of Mission Dolores and the voiceover says, “At this moment we’re standing on the spot that was the terminus of El Camino Real as Junipero Serra knew it in his lifetime.” I then segue into my meditation on Vertigo. This voiceover was actually written sitting on the steps of Mission Dolores Basilica which happens to be across the street from our synagogue (Congregation Sha’ar Zahav). I would often sit there on Saturday mornings when my daughter was in class at the synagogue. This is one of the amazing things about living in San Francisco — it’s like living on the set of Vertigo.
There’s a durational quality to the way you use the landscape on film, I see it as the state of California essentially performing for your narration. What were you and your cinematographer Sophia Constantinou looking for in those choices of location, and how you captured them?
I love the way you phrase this question because I have been thinking a lot lately about my approach to landscapes as being more akin to portraiture. I really think it is more like the buildings and streets and infrastructure of the city are posing for me. They take in the sun, the shadow, the qualities of the weather and I am framing my compositions to make them convey their personalities — often they are a bit melancholy, sometimes they seem more joyful. Again, this is the thing about living here — I am always experiencing the city as a set, anyplace I am I think of how to compose it as a shot and I’m constantly writing these things down on scraps of paper. Before Sophie and I go out to actually shoot I generate a shot list organized by locations and then we drive back and forth across town capturing them. I would also say I am always looking for a certain kind of mundane quality which at first glance seems prosaic but when it is framed in a certain way and then held up for you as a long take you are able to see the truly incredible beauty.
Was this a way of working established together on your previous film The Joy of Life, and do you see these films in a kind of dialogue with each other?
I like to think of The Joy of Life and The Royal Road as the first two parts of a trilogy exploring the California landscape so yes they are very much in dialogue. It may be many years before I’m able to actually make the third film though. Unfortunately it isn’t as easy to be an artist here and to be able to make a living. So my filmmaking is a sadly expendable luxury right now.
There’s a love story woven into the text, and it captures that intense first flush/rickety emotional swell so vividly. I’m hoping you might speak about the ambiguous nature of it, and how you channel a fictional character, which you mention in the film.
Using the first person monologue format is a way of creating both intimacy with the viewer and also a vulnerability in the main character (which is simultaneously me and me being a fictional character, being a kind of persona). This combination allows the audience to then access their own emotions more deeply as they, hopefully, identify with the character and connect with their own memories and experiences. This is one of the greatest things about experimental filmmaking is that it opens up so much space for the viewer to have their own experience.
You meditate deeply on nostalgia in your film, and your defensive feelings towards it – just hearing that excerpt of a lecture from Tony Kushner made me feel guilty too, and I had a similar reaction when reading a blurb on the back of one of the umpteenth editions of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film which described it as guide of ‘how to love what’s come before without nostalgia.’ Do you think that nostalgia and true criticality can co-exist?
I think I am trying to have it both ways. I offer my defense of nostalgia in these lofty terms as though I am really being quite analytical and heady about it, but of course I am also just wanting to be able to indulge my vice and not feel guilty about it. But I do think that guilt has been generative for me and it really prompted me to craft this argument for the redemption of nostalgia. In the film I say: “By reconnecting us to our humanity, I believe nostalgia could be the very thing that saves us.” When I first wrote this it seemed like it was too bold a thing to say and I wasn’t even completely sure what I meant. Over the past year of showing the film and thinking more deeply about it, I really do believe this quite seriously. I think a certain kind of nostalgia can help us to stay connected to the physical analogue world in which we live.
While on the subject of nostalgia, there’s a recurring link to Hollywood classics and studio pictures in The Royal Road, and you speak at length about Hitchcock’s magnificent Vertigo. Your work errs on the more poetic side of cinema, are you similarly inspired by the history of experimental filmmaking? Perhaps because he is also a transplanted San Franciscan, but Nathanial Dorsky comes to mind.
On the one hand I am a huge fan of experimental cinema. On the other hand I sometimes feel like a bit of a poser as I have actually not seen that much work. There are a few favorite filmmakers I have but truly what I have seen is very limited. I adore Su Friedrich’s work. I was very influenced by William E. Jones. Words don’t exist to convey the genius of Chantal Akerman’s work (though even that I have still not seen enough of). I have read Nathaniel Dorsky’s book, Devotional Cinema, but I have never seen his films.
Another studio film mentioned is that classic queer-film-with-a-tragic-ending, The Children’s Hour, with its coming out scene that’s still such a heart-wrencher. In the film you speak about recognising yourself in Shirley MacLaine’s character, how much was cinema an escape for you, growing up?
There is so much to say about the cinephilia of my childhood. It was always classic Hollywood cinema that was my drug of choice — the world of 1930s Hollywood, the gangster movies and Marx Brothers comedies, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper. I did see The Children’s Hour much later but yes, I think the movies helped me survive.
After enduring those negative or moralistic portrayals of LGBTI characters, what’s the first queer film you can recall seeing that didn’t end in tragedy, and did it have an impact on you?
One of the most important ones was Times Square. Which isn’t completely explicit in being a lesbian film. It all feels very subtextual and not 100% satisfying as a lesbian film (though I ended up doing extensive research on it in the early ’90s and indeed there had been more clear lesbian content that was removed from the script). It really is one of my all-time favorite films. In fact in the early ’90s I purchased a 35mm print of the film from a collector in Australia which I still have.
I’m interested in your work with archival imagery, which I believe was initially inspired by Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet. Do you think that working with so many hours of other filmmakers’ footage has influenced the ruminative, intimate style of your own work as an artist?
I’m not really sure how to answer that. I think actually I really have two very different parts of who I am as a creative person. I tend to shuttle back and forth between them. I will make my own films that explore the landscape or these poetic little stories and then the next project will be some kind of archival or non-fiction topic and so on. In 2005 the two things coincided and my film The Joy of Life came out and so did my historical project, The Queer Movie Poster Book.
I see a connection to the way you frame locations with your films to your work as an archivist, particularly in The Royal Road. The locations are almost timeless – there’s only an occasional car or a tell-tale piece of graffiti.
Ah yes, that is very true. I am always trying to compose the landscape in a way where I crop out the contemporary: I try to eliminate as much as possible any modern parking signs or billboards or other indicators of the stressful elements of the landscape that I find so distracting. Sometimes when I see an empty wall it brings tears to my eyes — it evokes to me a calmer time. In my shots I want to remove the aggressive manifestations of capitalism that accost us so relentlessly and demand our attention everywhere we turn. The irony here is that in my day job I am VP of marketing at Wolfe Video.
The Royal Road was shot on 16mm, what’s your connection to using film as opposed to digital, and do you ever get to screen from film, rather than DCP?
I finished the film on digital so there is no 16mm print to project. I used to feel sad about that but in truth I am also benefiting from many aspects of digital technology. But yes, shooting on film is an inherent part of my aesthetic as a filmmaker.
You mention in the film that you have been shooting San Francisco – your muse? – since you first arrived there. Do you have plans for piecing together this footage?
Yes, that is what I have been doing over all these years. I now have a reservoir of footage over the course of nearly 20 years. Stay tuned for film number three in the triptych!