A cinematic essay in defense of remembering, The Royal Road offers up a primer on Junipero Serra’s Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War alongside intimate reflections on nostalgia, the pursuit of unavailable women, butch identity and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo — all against a contemplative backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes, and featuring a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner.
This bold, innovative film from acclaimed San Francisco filmmaker Jenni Olson combines rigorous historical research with lyrically written personal monologue and relates these seemingly disparate stories from an intimate, colloquial perspective to tell a one-of-a-kind California tale.
“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.” – Melissa Anderson, The Voice.
“Instigated in part by a troubled long-distance relationship that found Olson based in San Francisco and the object of her affection in L.A., The Royal Road treats the physical landscape of California as a kind of palimpsest of conflicting desires – romantic and sexual, colonial and political. In the film, Olson chooses to emphasize the various disruptions of the historic road that is her subject, El Camino Real, both through her formalist approach and her digressive storytelling. The general format of The Royal Road is one of fixed-frame shots of relative duration, all of them characterized by a tendency to keep human activity at a distance. Instead, Olson asks us to consider spatial relationships: the San Francisco Bay, a statue of Serra on a cliff overlooking a city, a winding bit of road that curls around a house like a private driveway, or a distant fragment of an anonymous freeway noteworthy only because of one of those mission bells.
As Olson provides these select views, we hear her voiceover providing both concrete historical data about the Spanish settlement of California, and her own narrative as a non-native Californian coming to adopt certain identities and images as part of her personal history. Olson describes the impact that Hollywood films such as Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) had on her, particularly while coming to terms with her gender dysphoria and nascent butch identity. In a viewing scenario that very much runs counter to Laura Mulvey’s account of “fetishistic scopophilia” in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (wherein female spectators are always positioned as secondary objects, characterized by their “to-be-looked-at-ness”), Olson describes locating herself alongside the fictional men onscreen. […]
The Royal Road does not explicitly connect Olson’s private experience to the shared public histories of California. But as she allows them to drift alongside each other, we begin to sense an affective logic, one hardened into physical argument by Olson’s sharp, exacting montage and geometrical framing. The film is an assemblage of experience at multiple levels of abstraction.” – Michael Sicinski, CinemaScope