The Royal Road
Jenni Olson begins her documentary... perhaps "filmed meditation" is a better word to describe it... titled " The Royal Road" with two quotations -- one of the them from a movie's voice-over ("Sunset Boulevard") and one from a book on film, Michel Chion's "The Voice in Cinema," from 1999. Of the two, the latter is especially appropriate: "The word 'voiceover' designates any bodiless voices in a film that tell stories, provide commentary, or evoke the past."
Olson does all of these things. She regales us with snippets from her life (she was a "gender-dysphoric tomboy" from "the Midwest" and she grew up the sort of suitor who prefers her women to be unavailable -- which they are, because they are "straight, married, crazy, what have you"). She guides us through swatches of American history (particularly with regard to the state of California and the Mexican-American War). She reflects on her own way of clinging to the past (she actually presents a fascinating defense of nostalgia as a means of remaining integrated in the real, analogue world despite the digital nature of our times).
But the Chion quote goes on, and what he says not is also directly relevant: "When this voice has not yet been visualized," he adds, "we get a special being, a kind of talking and acting shadow."
Olson does not appear on camera herself. She composes her film from moving-image portraits of streets, roads, buildings, and bridges, shots taken using a 16 mm camera -- more defiant analogue (cinematographer Sophie Constantinou is listed in the closing credits, though Olson speaks of making it a project to film San Francisco herself) -- and she seems to waver between "special being" and shadow. She identifies with heroes from film noir classics; she offers a critical analysis of the Hitchcock film "Vertigo."
And, not incidentally, she retraces the "King's Highway," or "El Camino Real," across the state, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, two cities playing home to two different -- and, yes, unavailable -- women.
Olson is a film historian and has served San Francisco's Frameline film festival as a co-director. (Currently, she works for Wolfe Video as the company's vice president of e-commerce and consumer marketing.) She has a sense of time in both the cinematic and historic senses of the word; perhaps it's the expertise that allows her to pull off the trick of making this documentary seem to float outside of time. You'd need to see "Royal Road" more than once to appreciate its scope fully, and the experience of watching it is akin to falling into a deeply meditative state of mind.
What does it all mean? It's a personal narrative for Olson -- how can it not be, given her straightforward, simple assertions of desire, intention, and result? Olson is a graceful and gifted writer. Her own voiceover work is a little flat, and a little affectless, but it also sounds completely genuine. This is Olson herself, speaking right to us, and her voice refuses to let us go. "Royal Road" is informative, but that's not really it's purpose. As art, this documentary draws its power from the strictly, in some ways intimately, personal.