Jenni Olson: The Royal RoadMarch 12, 2015
Jenni Olson’s second feature-length narrative film, The Royal Road (2015), which I saw as part of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier exhibition, solidifies her standing as a major voice in the use of film as personal essay. The film is primarily composed of two elements—Olson’s self-consciously butch voiceover narration paired with long takes of beautifully composed empty urban landscapes. However, this spare approach belies a sly complexity, as the film burrows into the endlessly mineable terrains of history, memory, and culture.
Olson’s previous narrative feature, The Joy of Life (2005), both elucidates the social-psychological conditions that position the Golden Gate Bridge as a suicide monument and relates Olson’s deep personal connection to it as a site of loss. A devastating work of art, the film also played a pivotal role in renewing public debate about the need for a suicide barrier on the bridge.1 In The Royal Road, Olson again performs the double move of disentangling and recombining her personal identity from and within the larger cultural landscape that has shaped it, this time focusing on another California landmark rich with metaphoric resonance: El Camino Real.
Olson’s wry narration disarmingly slips between recounting personal stories of unrequited romance, loving analysis of classic Hollywood movie plots, and the histories of pre–Gold Rush California. First established by Jesuit and Franciscan monks in the late seventeenth century as a route to connect missionary outposts, “the El Camino Real” (as any native Californian will refer to it, definite article included), in Olson’s hands, serves as a spine to unite and separate the voiceover’s divergent narratives and analysis. One of several major themes in Olson’s narration is her insistent infatuation with unavailable women and the great lengths she will travel in order to disappoint herself. With every new crush, Olson inevitably finds herself making the trek along El Camino Real headed toward yet more romantic futility. It is also in relation to El Camino Real that Olson describes Father Junipero Serra, one of the road’s primary architects, the history of the Mexican-American War, and the eventual annexation of California to the United States.
Perhaps echoing the work of Chris Marker, The Royal Road insistently tests the tenuous ties between memory and identity. Not only does Olson reference the effect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) on viewers’ imaginary and nostalgic relationships to San Francisco, as in Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), she also approaches the establishment of spheres of personal and cultural identity in a way that resonates with Marker’s concept of “immemory.” Like Walter Benjamin and W.G. Sebald did before him, Marker based much of his work on investigating the power and effects of fragmentary memory and describes memory as a kind of structured geography mapped through the narration of its elements including films, photos, and historic or personal accounts. He also writes that memory is prone to fantasy and is full of gaps that get smoothed over through the construction of identity composed as a kind of geographical terrain. Marker writes: “In every life we would find continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae. We could draw the map of such a memory and extract images from it with greater ease (and truthfulness) than from tales and legends.”2 This is how Olson treats the real and imaginary terrain of El Camino Real: as a locus for memory of all sorts, and as such she extracts from it images of history and identity.
If Olson is influenced by Marker, her stylistic approach remains uniquely her own. The Royal Road is visually composed as a series of empty urban landscapes, explicitly posed as topographies of both real spaces of social interaction and of desire and nostalgia. We see San Francisco framed through its homes, empty factories with fading 1950s-style signage, missions, freeways, or over the water of the bay. There is a specific sense of detachment offered by the film’s images that reinforces the pastness of each location. Each landscape is presented in single still camera shots that at times go on for minutes. The lengthy duration of each shot, coupled with Olson’s voiceover, creates a languid pace and opens up the image to representing several perspectives of time. The strategy is fascinating and keeps perfectly with Olson’s themes— that history continues with or without us, that nostalgia is inevitable, and images themselves can help us to recognize how the past is present and shapes one’s own desires. Olson’s use of standard 16mm film, expertly shot by cinematographer Sophia Constantinou, enhances each image’s temporal elasticity. The physical properties of the film are perceptible through its grain and vibrant (almost painterly) color. These same qualities also give the images a sense of anachronism, evoking a time when celluloid film was the norm for both Hollywood and home movies. Perhaps above all, the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio positions the film as immediately “reminiscent,” its nearly square shape harkening the viewing conventions of the past and self-consciously referring to the work’s filmic reality.
Occasionally, Olson’s voiceover yearns to explain what’s at stake in her interaction with architecture and landscape, clarifying the film’s representational setup. As the camera frames the corner of a brick house and its bucolic yard, Olson says, “How to describe my deep spiritual belief about this? Of how the things that remain unchanged and aging all around us in this ever-changing world actually anchor us to our current selves? And in the aching knowledge of the old, the lost, the forgotten can be found the moment in which we come fully alive to this day?” In this moment, Olson’s narration expresses the contradictory heart of The Royal Road, as the film continuously seems to ask how one can overcome the loss of the sense of loss. How can one live in quiet celebration of the beautiful awareness that we are essentially incomplete?
Thankfully, Olson frequently resorts to dry, mildly self-deprecating humor while addressing such questions, as if to remind herself that she’s slipping into nostalgia. Throughout the film, she makes tongue-in-cheek comparisons of herself to the great lovers of Western history, such as Don Juan and Casanova. Like these storied men or a California missionary, Olson is all about conquest. And, yet, in the stories she tells, she never winds up the leading man or sealing the deal, choosing objects of affection that are unavailable, straight, already married, or geographically distant, in short, women who can’t offer true intimacy and are always out of reach. In this way, the path charted by Olson’s lulling voice echoes that other “royal road” designated by Freud: that of dreams, those deferred and distorted forms of wish fulfillment, where the destination is never reached and that inevitably lead back to the thorny, tangled territory of the unconscious.