Suffused with melancholy, longing, and chagrin, Jenni Olson’s supple cine-essay The Royal Road is, above all, a film against forgetting. In its densely packed but fleet 64 minutes, this discursive documentary considers topics as disparate as the Spanish colonization of California, the Mexican-American War, Vertigo (and other celluloid touchstones), and the director’s own “lifelong pursuit of women.” As personal as it is political, Olson’s meditative project offers a profound lesson on intimacy and history — and the ways in which both are distorted and remade by memory.
The documentary’s title is the English translation of “El Camino Real,” the 600-mile path, running from Sonoma in the north to San Diego in the south, that connects California’s 21 Spanish missions. Olson focuses on the stretch between San Francisco, where she has lived since 1992 and where her earlier nimble essay film The Joy of Life (2005) takes place, and Los Angeles, home of “Juliet,” one of her unconsummated crushes. The complex adoration the movie-besotted filmmaker feels for this inamorata extends to her place of dwelling; Juliet’s Spanish Colonial Revival lodging is compared with the one that shelters Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), one of several titles from Hollywood’s golden age that Olson discusses eloquently.
The Royal Road opens, in fact, with Olson citing another Billy Wilder classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film that famously begins with the posthumous voiceover of its protagonist, first seen floating face-down in a pool. Though of course very much alive, Olson, a bodiless presence, hovers like a specter throughout the film, her fluid narration — delivered in a voice that is steady, low, impassive, and still somehow impassioned — evoking all kinds of ghosts. The images are beautiful yet haunting: simple, static urban-landscape compositions — showcasing San Francisco’s Drydock, or the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, or, more often, mundane buildings and homes — that are entirely devoid of people.
That these city tableaux were shot, by Olson’s cinematographer Sophie Constantinou, on 16mm Kodak film underscores the director’s affection for the physical, the analog, the old and perhaps soon-to-be-obsolete. “To this day, I suffer from a compulsion to defend my overly intense attachment to the past,” Olson, born in 1962, confesses. “The past” here can refer to still contentious events from hundreds of years ago, as in the filmmaker’s elucidation of the uglier side of the legacy of Father Junípero Serra (canonized by Pope Francis last month), who forced the conversion (and worse) of California’s native population in the eighteenth century. Or it can imply interactions between two people that transpired just a day or hours before: “I cherish these aftermaths, these reminiscences,” the director says of her fondness for replaying in her mind the minutiae of every moment spent with a woman she’s been trying to woo.
In segueing so seamlessly from broad overviews of American history — at one point an animated map is deployed to illustrate the territory Mexico had to cede after its defeat by the U.S. in 1847, in our nation’s largely forgotten “first foreign war” — to candid first-person disclosures, Olson reveals a great talent for shaping a narrative and arriving at fruitful detours. Her gift for storytelling is rooted in her cinema-glutted childhood, her memories of which are worth quoting at length: “Growing up in the Midwest as a gender-dysphoric tomboy, watching movies was a cherished relief from the awkward realities of daily life. Emulating the actors in my favorite classic Hollywood films, I happily acquired a new borrowed masculine persona. Experiencing myself as a fictional character has been a mode of survival for me ever since.”
Those elegant sentiments reminded me of this pithy observation by Patricia White in her critical study Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (1999), a work I can never recommend highly or often enough: “Cinema is public fantasy that engages spectators’ particular, private scripts of desire and identification.” Though Uninvited isn’t mentioned in The Royal Road, Olson’s film shares a deep affinity with White’s book in that both are invested in mapping out lesbian cinephilia. It’s no surprise, then, that reflections on another film — Vertigo — should serve as The Royal Road‘s most illuminating through line.
Olson has mined Hitchcock’s 1958 Fog City–set masterpiece before: The Joy of Life devotes part of its psycho-geographical ruminations to the rescuing of Madeleine (Kim Novak) by Scottie (James Stewart) after she jumps into the San Francisco Bay. But it is Vertigo‘s overarching theme, “about the pull of the past,” that most interests Olson in The Royal Road and amplifies her larger points about the pleasures and pitfalls of nostalgia, whether evidenced in California architecture movements (the Mission Revival style that emerged in the late 1800s) or in the director’s pining for someone completely unavailable. Olson astutely notes that Scottie is “caught up in his own travelogue of desire” as he pursues the soignée Madeleine, the woman he will be so desperate to re-create, throughout the city; later in Hitchcock’s film, they will drive 90 miles south along El Camino Real to Mission San Juan Bautista, the site of Vertigo‘s climactic moment. In her own unforgettable travelogue of desire, Olson voyages even farther down this historic route for a woman who consumes her. “I continue to search for inspiration in the movies, just like I did when I was little,” she says in the closing minutes of The Royal Road, a film that richly rewards its viewers with the very thing she has spent her life seeking.
The Royal Road
Written and directed by Jenni Olson
Opens October 30, Anthology Film Archives