It’s been 10 years since Jenni Olson released The Joy of Life, a landscape-essay film that, among various achievements, mused on the association between the Golden Gate Bridge and suicide. The film, alongside Olson’s op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle about the topic, reignited a discussion about the need for preventative measures to be taken, which stayed prevalent through the release of the documentary The Bridge. Alongside that history in The Joy of Life, however, was a love story, and this combination of love story and social history is the formula once again The Royal Road, Olson’s follow-up, which tackles less pressing, more cerebral matters.
The Royal Road sees Olson call for a proper remembrance of California’s forgotten history as a Spanish colony and part of Mexico, and defends the idea of nostalgia against the railings of Tony Kushner, Bertolt Brecht, and Alfred Hitchcock, whose Vertigo is interpreted as a film about the futility of nostalgia, and whose San Francisco locations Olson films. Intertwining these ideas with a story of unrequited love and shooting them against images of California that recall the historical, cinematic, and personal—sometimes all at once—creates provocative and difficult questions about time and memory.
The problem with The Royal Road, then, is one of execution rather than conception. Olson’s ideas are all worth contemplating, but each one is given to us with insulting condescension or else explicated so directly that the subtext evaporates.
Take, for example, the film’s beginning. After a brief monologue, the film cuts to a title card providing film theorist Michel Chion’s definition of “voiceover,” which reads as you would expect alongside the description of an unseen narrator as “a kind of talking and acting shadow.” That Olson gives us this means she probably expects us to zero in on the “talking and acting shadow” phrase, an interpretive lens through which to view the film.
Indeed, we never see Olson, who becomes a shadow and talks of them too. She recounts California’s forgotten ties to Spain and Mexico, talks of her own “misremembered” past with an ex-lover; and of Vertigo. Increasingly, however, Olson’s voiceover, like her title cards, suggests she thinks little of her audience. Despite a level tone, both drip with condescension. Her title cards define “antihero” and explain the dual meaning of “road,” while a brief chapter in the film entitled “in defense of nostalgia” sees Olson state outright that “in this exceptionally digital age,” nostalgia is a way of “staying connected to the physical analog world” and “the thing that [could] save us.” For those still behind, she says shortly thereafter, she quotes Vertigo’s “the things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast” speech and explains that “In capturing images on film, I’m engaged in a completely impossible and yet partially successful attempt to stop time. These images serve as a reminder to remember what once was and to appreciate what now is.”
That quote hits the nail too firmly on the head, so The Royal Road’s points and ideas are nullified by its director’s hammer. Instead of excavating the past, be it her own or California’s, she simply lays out facts. The pleasures that remain are incidental, but not invalid. It is rather remarkable that Vertigo is such a malleable text, as valid a complicating text for this film as it is for Sans Soleil, and no film that reminds viewers of the potency of movies is without value, even if it does so in a different way than planned.