by Edward E. Crouse
Because the world
is so rich in detail, all of it so frail;
because all I love is imperfect;
because my memory’s flaw
isn’t in retention but organization
The City in Which I Love You
Our friends the archivists estimate that celluloid may keep images stable for 500 years—nearly the same amount of time it took Columbus, as well as future conquerors/inhabitants, to wring genocide and then sentimental remodeling of that history within the “new” continent of North America. Jenni Olson’s elegiac second feature The Royal Road binds the fragility of celluloid and annexation to her smoldering heart, and in the process rings true with the allure and devastation of captured lands, people, and emotions-images. It is also about a different kind of friction: seduction and its discontents.
Precisely, statically framed in 16mm, the movie conjoins the filmmaker’s plainspoken narration and the occasional murmur of ambient sound, as it tangles threads from the immediate and distant past. Olson voice is the most physical trace of her; she remains unseen throughout Road , content to be a bodiless shadow presence. An archivist and collector, she presents here as an infatuated cinephile and yearning lonely traveler, a near-somnambulist entrapped by desire for two unseen women (one in Los Angeles, the other in San Francisco), by colonial history, by some of Hollywood’s most tormented tempests. Whether tracing the morphing of New Spain into the Western-Southwestern United States or describing (imagined or real) love capers with these women, she drives her alto voice to butch depths, crackling a little on the way—you can merely imagine how her face changes as she speaks.
With fellow travelers Sophia E. Constantinou (cinematography) and Dawn Logsdon (editing), she steers herself down the busted trail of California’s El Camino Real (translation: the Royal Road, or the King’s Highway). In its heyday, the road connected twenty-one missions, bases of annexation envisioned by King Carlos III, Gaspar de Portola, and Father Junipero Serra. Currently, El Camino is fragmented into numerous highways, streets, and paths from the San Diego up to Sonoma. Olson’s Road ambles along El Camino’s terrain — mainly modern-day San Francisco and Los Angeles — with a plaintive formula: fixed shots of cityscapes/landscapes plus personal voiceover minus musical score. That the voiceover may recollect fictional or composite women only enhances the spell.
Road makes unpeopled spaces into screen-stars: bar signs ablink, ads painted into bricks, electrical lines broken and pendulating, fraying stucco, bay windows, stretches of tracks, rubble-strewn alleys, zipped-through highways covered in invincible foliage, Spanish kitsch homes, white mission buildings. Time is confounded, ambiguous, as she states, “I’ve been filming the landscapes of San Francisco since just a few years I arrived here,” declining to specify when that was. The determinedly non-dated views rhyme with “dates,” the word that Olson and one woman avoid when they meet occasionally, flirtatiously. The movie’s austere visuals rarely illustrate the narration; they flicker by, firewalled from the events that her disembodied shadow-voice recounts. One droll flourish does betray the image-voice schism: she recollects trying unsuccessfully to captivate one woman with a “charming—or else tedious—jam-packed geographical history lesson”; then, in lockstep with an animated map, she lurches into the untedious tale of Manifest Destiny and three competing colonizing nations decimating a continent. Defeat segues into conquest. Toxicity feeds perceptions of the past and of past nonstarter romances, like the vegetation on highway 280 that she imagines “thrives on, is actually nourished by, the exhaust of automobiles.”
Much of The Royal Road, as some astute commentators have noted, lands on some of fellow experimentalist James Benning’s turf. Olson’s long-distance vista-visuals sit patiently, one minute at most; alongside her narration, they form as an eerie effect all their own. Close in anxious influence, too, are Ozu’s “pillow shots,” interstitial landscapes in motion that punctuate or break up action even as they bear an odd relation to the melodrama or comedy at hand; here, in The Royal Road — save for the animated sequence and assorted quotations on title cards—such shots are about all we get. But they yield much for a viewer.
Unlike many on the modern experimental film scene, Olson is very out about the thorny pleasures of old Hollywood films, how they embed the psyche, allowing one to reenvision oneself in queered colors. This tendency connects her with the early waves of queer avant-gardists — Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, George Kuchar, Curt McDowell — whose souls tarried in vengeful rapture with decrepit yet glamorous Hollywood productions. She plumbs the root system of her adoration of classic American movies, and how she, as a “gender dysphoric tomboy” in the Midwest, became an ever-foiled Casanova to unavailable women. Along the way, through movies, she also, “as a mode of survival,” assumed the personae of fictional Hollywood characters, the desperate men and women who often cannot express their deepest desires, or express such desires with death at or near them (Joe Gillis, Walter Neff).
Road’s visuals make a romantic case for the durability of celluloid, how the camera-film stock-light buzzes with granular goodness, creating a visual music — a lyrical minor-key symphony of California in four movements. Humans are barely discernible in passing cars. Olson and Constantinou work particularly with cityscapes from which there is no escape, even as Olson narrates a queered zone between film noir — often a male hysteric genre—and melodrama’s whorls of emotional traffic, unhappy ends that are quizzically satisfying; pivoting on the notion of risk, that love remembered may also be eternally lost, silenced as clapperless bells.
How curious that the lion’s share of movie-laden voiceover is dedicated to a movie with none: Vertigo. Olson spirals herself into Hitchcock’s world, re-possesses the psychic terrain of the protagonists, Madeleine and Scottie, not to mention Hitchcock himself. San Francisco’s soul, in contention seemingly since its founding by Serra and his missionaries, is disappearing like magic ink, and The Royal Road does its part to rescue some of the city’s essence.
Road is a rumination, too, which of course is a polar term: rumination can soothe you or emit harsh moments that skitter through the skull like a molten pinball. Rumination conjures the past, when the unbearably tactile moments (a near-lover’s hair grazes your face, resets your senses) curl around the toxic ones. Tony Kushner, in an aural cameo, chides nostalgia and its ruminative style as a “Satanic” mode, facing away from the future in which we must all live. Olson hears these words implicate her. She doesn’t flinch from the embarrassing sides of musing, unrequited attraction, dreaminess. Road is a defense of all, rooted in analog pleasures and buildings that bear their own knowledge of the tides of time and the ephemeral people who exit and enter. It is also a masterclass in reflective filmmaking.
Click here to read a Vertigo-centric script excerpt from the The Royal Road, from EDF23.
Friday, June 19, 2015; 11am; Castro Theatre, 419 Castro St, SF.
Monday, June 22, 2015; 7pm; Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College Ave, Berkeley.
Edward E. Crouse is in his third decade of writing about movies and other media for publications such as the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Village Voice, Film Comment, Time Out Chicago, and Stagebill. He has co-authored a monograph on Curtis Harrington for Anthology Film Archives. Currently he programs at the Nightingale, a “rough and ready” microcinema in Chicago.