No living human beings ever appear onscreen in local filmmaker/critic Jenni Olson’s video essay “The Royal Road.” Statues honoring Father Junipero Serra and Spain’s King Carlos III are the only humanrepresentations seen in Olson’s meditative film. Yet their historical legacies of subjugating the Native Californian population via religion or arms hardly make them objects of celebration.
Onscreen pride of place instead belongs to ghosts of various sorts. Shots of old buildings allude to the ghosts of businesses past or the former inhabitants of residential homes. Cars and trains traverse the screen seemingly controlled without human agency. The film’s most elusive phantoms exist in Hollywood dreams and forgotten historical truths. They are the stories of unfulfilled desires (“Roman Holiday”) and uncomfortable realities (e.g. the real reasons for the Mexican War).
Rather than being a cinematic necropolis, Olson’s film essay is filled with the contradictions and uncertainties that make life the eternal counterpoint to death. Olson’s passion for the Los Angeles-based Julia is dogged by her fears that the object of her affections lacks a commensurate degree of passion. Her reverse traversal of El Camino Real (the Spanish name of the film’s titular highway) may tap into the road’s historical legacy of conquest. Yet there are no fatal repercussions should Julia deny Olson her heart.
That lack of physical fatality puts Olson one up over others who have traversed the royal road. William Holden’s character in “Sunset Boulevard” eventually wound up dead after following the road to the mansion of Gloria Swanson’s faded film star. Native Americans who rejected the entreaties of Father Serra to convert to Christianity while he traversed El Camino Real probably didn’t live long enough to truly revel in their defiance.
So what describes El Camino Real? It’s California’s oldest existing road. Its 600 mile length stretches from Southern California all the way up to Sonoma. Nowadays that famed historical path has been shattered into slivers of tarmac courtesy of intersections with such highways as Route 101. Traces of the royal road can still be found in the roadside bells marking the route and the El Camino Real streets found in the towns which absorbed their slice of that hundreds-of-miles long path.
A slivered pathway also describes the romantic travails of “The Royal Road”’s narrator. She obviously knows how to pick up women and be in love with them. Yet the destination beyond a beloved’s reciprocation of affection seems hazy or non-existent. How much of that haziness of purpose comes from the lack of archetypes available to describe active female lovers? Men have Don Juan, Romeo, and Casanova. Who do women, particularly butch lesbians such as Olson, have to match those male archetypes?
Perhaps perceptions about lesbian relationships and roles need to be reinvented before such archetypes can be created or identified. San Francisco certainly would be a good social laboratory for inventing such things. Olson notes the city is a place where reinvention is part of the fabric of the land.
Yet reinventing herself relationship-wise seems to be a skill that eludes Olson. Her devoting considerable time and emotional energy to repeatedly pursuing emotionally unavailable women doesn’t seem accompanied by any self-awareness that wanting a more lasting relationship may require moving her emotional boundaries.
Olson’s more problematic relationship with reinvention concerns her fascination with the past. The process of reinvention by its very nature includes a desire to create a better future. Tony Kushner suggests that desire may involve embracing the bad new things since they contain the seeds of the future. “The Royal Road” section titled “In Defense of Nostalgia” offers a riposte to Kushner’s assertions. Seeing older residential neighborhoods dappled in sunlight or fog conveys serenity and a desire for permanence. Those picturesque urban landscapes captured in Olson’s film gain a kind of immortality, moments preserved against the erosion of time and commercial exploitation. Those captured images empathize with the “Vertigo” character Gavin Elster’s lament that “The things that mean San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.”
Admittedly, rejection of the past is part of the process of reinvention. Most LGBTs who come to San Francisco from elsewhere would avoid homophobic communities resembling the ones they left. But reinvention does not involve a nihilistic wholesale rejection of the past. Olson reminds viewers the “manifest destiny” rhetoric rationalized the American government’s unconscionable taking of half of the then-new nation of Mexico’s land. Yet how can it be determined what parts of the past to keep and what parts to abandon? Who makes that determination? An abandoned factory with its brick facade may speak to Olson of the various trades plied in that space for decades. Yet another person may consider that same abandoned building an eyesore which needs to be torn down immediately.
Reinvention’s subjectivity provides an ironic counterpoint to the clear destination implied by the film’s title. A road goes from Point A to Point B. But what if you’re not sure where or what Point B is? Alternately, what if you know where Points A and B are, but the path connecting those two points seem far from a straight line? Viewers of Olson’s film may not have an answer to the first question, but such detours as the quote from a Frank O’Hara poem or Hollywood films about unconsummated love provide intriguing asides.
Perhaps that’s what makes Olson’s cinephilia an important part of this film essay. The fictional characters of classic Hollywood films provided her with an emotional survival tool for a tough early life. “Vertigo” offers object lessons in the pitfalls of loving nostalgia and pursuing the slowly vanishing past. But the director avoids equating Shirley Mc Laine’s famed confession in “The Children’s Hour” with the I Ching.
Ironically, for all Olson’s talk of seeking permanence, her voiceover narration doesn’t grant her any semblance of immortality. The inability to visualize who Olson is from her voice leaves her a “talking and acting shadow.”
(“The Royal Road” screens on September 24, 2015 at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF).)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment