Film Scratches: Connecting Personal and National History in The Royal Road (2015)
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
The Royal Road, Jenni Olson’s thoughtful and beautiful essay film on love, longing, the movies, and California history, has received an unusual amount of screen time and press accolades for an unconventional film, but I’d like to briefly add my voice to the chorus of praise, as the film certainly deserves to be seen is its upcoming screenings in San Francisco, New York and elsewhere.
The 65 minute film creates a rich viewing experience, despite the extreme minimalism of its structure: it consists simply of a series of long, static landscape shots (many over a minute) accompanied by Olson’s voice. The images, in lushly beautiful 16mm photography by Sophie Constantinou, depict the urban landscapes of San Francisco and Los Angeles, although to my prejudiced New York eye, attuned to concrete and skyscrapers, these Western cities sometimes don’t look like “cities” at all. In fact, trees, flowers, water and soil occupy a good deal of the frame in these images, which depict the relationship between the natural and the man-made. Virtually all of the shots include a section of road, or else a railroad or shipping route. Since (almost) none of the shots in the film include people, it makes sense that they are taken in early morning or early evening light. Not only is the light especially beautiful, but it helps Olson accomplish the tricky task of finding extended shots of an urban environment, minus the people. (Of course she is also helped because people don’t walk on the streets in L.A. as they do in New York.) The motion in this motion picture of lockdown shots is limited to the subtle movement of leaves, waves, and the passing of cars, and this simplicity awakens the eye to the quiet liveliness of still moments.
The narration is an extended essay in which Olson draws together such seemingly disparate topics as her own obsession with pursuing unavailable women, her love of Hollywood films and her identification with its womanizing heroes, the Mexican-American war and the annexation of California, and the history of El Camino Real, the route where Father Junípero Serra built the original California missions. Olson is a wonderful writer, and her precise, evocative language reveals the penetrating quality of her wide-ranging intellectual and emotional insights: “One of the main reasons I’m attracted to landscapes and buildings is that, unlike people, they tend to endure for many generations. They possess an intimacy with the past that no person, however old, can approach.” She reads with a calm, but utterly compelling specificity, allowing her language, very much written rather than spoken, to come across so that we can hear every well-placed semi-colon and pair of parenthesis.
The images and the text are generally allowed to run on separate tracks, with the images commenting only obliquely on the text, never directly illustrating it. There are a good many pauses after the paragraphs, and shots which have no narration, to give the text a spacious, relaxed feeling, with plenty of room for contemplation, and to place the film’s visual track on an equal footing with the verbal. The few, subtle exceptions to this parallel structure can be startling and poetic. For example, in one sequence, Olson speaks about her love of old buildings, while we see the driveway of a rather nondescript brick house. When she speaks of the spirituality she finds in old places, and how they help us to reconnect to the present, a diaphanous wash of steam suddenly wafts out of one of the windows.
The one tiny glimpse of a human being in the film (like a Hitchcock cameo), is also telling: just as Olson describes her childhood experience of seeing William Wyler’s adaptation of The Children’s Hour (1961) as expressing her own feeling of both “knowing and not knowing” her sexual difference, we can see a person crossing the street in the far distance of an otherwise empty shot.
A section on the Mexican-American War begins with a quote by historian Don E. Fehrenbacher: “American memory of the nation’s first foreign war is surprisingly dim.” Olson elaborates on this point, and I am personally struck by it: I had already read, years ago, a detailed history of the war in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Yet, because there are so few references to our invasion and conquest of Northern Mexico in our cultural environment, I had managed to “forget” what I had read, and it was only part way into Olson’s retelling that I remembered that I already knew this history. Conquering and annexing foreign countries does not sit well with the American identity, so we have very successfully managed to act as if it never happened.
What connects the film’s many strands of thought? Olson’s sexual longing, her obsession with the past and with film heroes, and the American amnesia about our conquest and annexation of Northern Mexico all depend on denial, on a preference for the romantic and mythic over the unflattering and the real. Her discussion of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) serves as the pivot point for the film, connecting the themes of unrequited romantic longing and an obsession with a vanished past. Vertigo itself, of course, is a prime example of the hypnotic pull of image-making on a mythic scale.
The Royal Road has an obsessive focus on connecting pathways which belies its seemingly digressive structure. Olson has the kind of mind that finds unexpected pathways which link up many kinds of thoughts, feelings, and images, and her film can make your brain, your heart, and your eyeballs feel like they are connecting up through numerous newfound networks.