Can this film be considered a road movie of a whole other kind?
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Having premiered at Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, The Royal Road is at once a static, yet highly moving film.
Filmmaker Jenni Olson’s 16mm cinematographic meditation leans more toward travelogue than documentary, with Olson using the 600-mile route of California’s El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”) as a structural device. She decides to set out on the historic road that was created, starting 1769, to act as a 21-mission chain that would connect Southern and Northern California. She hops aboard Amtrak, traveling from her San Francisco home in the ironically named Mission District to see her friend Juliet in Los Angeles. Her ensuing trip takes her down a figurative two-lane highway, comprised of both a physical as well as a metaphorical journey.
Narrating the movie via voiceover, Olson nimbly folds in her historian background. Here, she’s quick to point out that while the evangelical Spanish Colonial missionary Father Junípero Serra (canonized in 2015), had customarily been lauded for his work as the hero who settled California via the missions, in reality he forced Catholicism on the Native Americans. His dedication to the “salvation of their souls” transcended any concern about obliterating Native American culture and beliefs. In a rare moment of ire, Olson doesn’t sugarcoat her feelings: “This 1770s West Coast decimation of the Native people parallels the genocide that the Pilgrims initiated at Plymouth Rock in the East, 150 years earlier.”
As Olson introduces each new image on screen, unlike the evangelical Father Serra, she doesn’t force her ideas on us. Instead, the shot simply appears, silent and nearly static. The film itself is devoid of any underlying music that might steer us toward a desired reaction. Instead, we see, and continue to see as the surrounding silence cushions us, allowing us an unaccustomed luxury to take the time to react. Eventually, Olson speaks.
Her voice is poetically resonant, her words intelligent and clear, as she reflects on a myriad of topics. Unrequited love (her deep yearning for her L.A. friend Juliet), Hollywood classic cinema, Mexican American history, her lesbian identity, and her attachment to nostalgia. The topical threads come and go, at times interweaving, at times drifting off … yet because we sense that she’s always mindful of the path, we trust her to guide us. Without ever questioning her sense of direction.
The filmmaker’s own road is anything but royal. Confessing to the pain of her otherness, she says, “Growing up in the Midwest as a gender dysphoric tomboy — watching movies was a cherished relief from the awkward realities of daily life. Emulating the actors in my favorite classic Hollywood films, I happily acquired a new borrowed masculine persona. Experiencing myself as a fictional character has been a mode of survival for me ever since.” This confession is not just revelatory, but sets up her frequent references to movies that speak to her inner turmoil. Self-absorbed ambition in Sunset Boulevard; sexual desperation in Double Indemnity; unconsummated love in Roman Holiday; and irrational chasing after the unattainable in Vertigo.
At first glance, most shots seem to be static. Yet upon further exploration, Olson’s and cinematographer Sophie Constantinou’s exteriors belie any kind of postcard immobility. At times the action is obvious, such as when a car suddenly traverses the forefront of the frame, or when a distant ship crosses under the Golden Gate bridge; other times the action is merely a breeze, a slight waft of air that moves through the fronds of a palm tree. No matter how imperceptible, Olson reminds us that these are indeed “moving pictures.”
In the production notes, the filmmaker discusses her choice of using 16mm film:
Shooting on regular 16mm is an organic component of my vision as an artist. While it may not do so on a conscious level, I’m convinced that viewers are impacted emotionally and psychologically as they experience these images in the now veritably obsolete format. The 4:3 aspect ratio, the grain of the film image and the color qualities of 50 daylight film stock all contribute to a set of feelings akin to nostalgia — evoking a calmer, quieter time in one’s own life.
The light, the framing and the composition are exquisite. Even images that initially appear to be banal suddenly reveal a surprising allure. Fading stucco boxes of mismatched color, housing the secrets of the denizens inside, rightfully demand as much screen time as the long distance beauty shots of the San Francisco cityscape.
Back to the route, the film nods to the “ash gray ribbon of road,” the homely, ubiquitous freeway system that occasionally plays peek-a-boo in the documentary’s background. Reminding us that the freeway is, in reality, today’s go-to Royal Road. Yet both paths are necessary: the old route that transports us back, allowing us to reflect on the prior history that shaped us, as well as the new route, propelling us ever forward.
Steered by the enormously creative Jenni Olson, The Royal Road is a trip that’s well worth taking.
Rating on a scale of 5 long and winding roads: 4
Release date: September 6, 2016 (VOD, multiple platforms including iTunes, Vimeo)
Written and Directed by: Jenni Olson
Voiceover: Jenni Olson
Voiceover Cameo: Tony Kushner
Running Time: 65 minutes
Here’s the trailer to The Royal Road: