The Royal Road (2016), Written and Directed by Jeni Olson, Wolf Video —
The Royal Road is a curious sort of documentary by filmmaker Jenni Olson. She gives us a lot to see and think about–perhaps two or three elements too many—in just over an hour. Her smart art film is a loving look at San Francisco and Los Angeles with a smattering of U.S. and California history. There are musings about remembered times and places, unrequited romances, a meditation on nostalgia and the internal monologues of a modern Lesbian woman longing for love.
Olson is the writer, producer and director as well as voice-over narrator of this ambitious work. But equal credit should be given to her cinematographer, Sophie Constantinou. When Orson Welles wrote, produced and directed his legendary first film, Citizen Kane, he shared his screen credit with his invaluable director of photography, Gregg Toland. There is a similar balance in The Royal Road. No matter what we hear from Olson about S.F., L.A., lost loves, Father Junipero Serra, et al, what we see is Constantinou’s film-noir-in-color. Her initially static shots—of Sunset Blvd, Craftsman homes, lonely roads, the Golden Gate Bridge, industrial brick buildings, hilly San Francisco, alleys in Silver Lake and various freeways—gradually, subtly begin to “move.” What appear to be still photographs reward a patient viewer with signs of life: a cat crosses the road; far off in the distance, a car passes by; tree branches gently sway in the wind. The visual images are, to my eye, the strongest elements in this documentary, whether or not the decisions about what, when and where to shoot were made by Olson or Constantinou.
There are no humans in any of the images we see. There are the bells atop some of the California Missions, ripples in the Pacific Ocean, graffiti on office buildings, various shipyards, telephone poles and their ugly wires—a repeated motif—and many shots from high up on hills looking down at cityscapes or green spaces familiar to anyone who knows Los Angeles or San Francisco. Olson explains her attachment to these visual memories in a voice-over:
I’ve been filming the landscapes of San Francisco since just a few years after I arrived here. In capturing these images on film, I’m engaged in a completely impossible and yet partially successful effort to stop time. I now own the landscapes that I love. I preserve them in the amber of celluloid so that I might re-experience these visions of dappled sunlight, the calm of a warm afternoon and the framing of an alley as it recedes into the distance. These images serve as a reminder of what once was and as a prompt to appreciate what now is.
Olson speaks in a bit of a monotone; her voice is measured, slightly raspy and quiet, almost contemplative. Her wish to connect to some of the women she talks about is palpable. Of one hoped-for relationship, she says I’m smitten and adoring; she’s vaguely affectionate. At another point, she says: I want people to like me, to fall in love with me, simply because it makes me feel better. I’m always searching for the thing that will make me feel better and so often that thing is a girl. She quotes a nice line from a Frank O’Hara poem: “I’m waiting for you to love me.”
So we have beautiful landscapes to see and some ruminations by and about the life and loves of Jenni Olson. But information about a variety of other topics seem to elbow into the narrative, too: passages (and maps) about Manifest Destiny and America’s gradual move westward; California’s conquest by the Spaniard Juan de Portola; the institution of 21 Catholic missions by the afore-mentioned Padre Serra. We learn about El Camino Real (The Royal Road), the 600-mile missionary route through California and the resulting subordination of Native Americans and Mexican people. There is a segment about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Vertigo and mentions of iconic images like the Coast Starlight train and the Alto Nido apartments—still standing—seen in the opening shot of Sunset Blvd.
All of these notions are in some way related to Olson’s nostalgic look at the two cities, the state and some of the women she loves. Many of these themes are worthy of their own individual documentaries but presenting such a multitude of ideas in a single work seems to dissipate its overall effect. Although her attraction to nostalgia is admirable, Olson’s focus is spread in too many directions at the same time. In her defense, the film might be more involving, more compelling, if seen on a big screen in a theatre rather than on a TV or computer.
Give The Royal Road a viewing, in any case, and some of Jenni Olson’s several strands of memory will surely capture your attention, as will her intelligent, stark, often beautiful photos that come alive as you watch them. As Olson says, By reconnecting us to our humanity, I believe nostalgia could be the very thing that saves us.
Filmaker Jenni Olson, writer/director of the Sundance film The Royal Road, stands near her house on Monday Dec. 21, 2014 in San Francisco, Calif.