“These inconceivable melodramas punctuate my waking life”
No description of Jenni Olson‘s essay over landscapes film The Royal Road is more concise or accurate than the final words spoken upon the culmination of its 65-minute visual monologue: “I want to tell you a story about love and loss and San Francisco that reveals more about me than I ever expected to say.” This goal is achieved on every level with imperceptibly moving vignettes of Californian locales flashing across the screen that may or may not have anything to do with what she’s saying. It’s a lesson about the state’s history, America as aggressor with Manifest Destiny, El Camino Real’s vast architecture, sights immortalized on the silver screen, and Olson’s own past—that love and loss with identity and passion. We know her without meeting her.
Point of fact: we don’t meet any humans unless memorialized in bronze atop plaques commemorating sanitized deeds for posterity. This is in itself a miraculous feat considering the populations of both San Francisco and Los Angeles, her two main subjects always in action yet never truly animated with life’s distracting chaos. While the feat is an aesthetic achievement to appreciate in its ability to force our focus onto Olson as she relates to each of her journey’s environments, I couldn’t help but find myself treading water to keep up. This is through no fault of the film, though—it succeeds at adhering to its genre’s conventions. The fault instead lies with my own inability to parse its parallel paths via separate senses solely because of how my mind operates.
Watching a film like this makes me empathize those afflicted by ADHD because I lose all concentration. The reason stems from the visuals being carefully selected by Olson in a very personal way that I simply cannot comprehend. I listen to her words and by default seek to decipher their relation to what’s onscreen. But thirty seconds, twenty seconds, sometimes only ten seconds go by and another visage replaces the previous one despite her train of thought remaining firmly entrenched in the same story. Suddenly I’m trapped two sentences behind, saddled with the decision to either ignore the new visual by closing my eyes to resituate myself with her words or shut my ears to soak in the visual like I would a painting on a gallery wall.
It’s a frustrating reality I unfortunately cannot shake. So while I acknowledge The Royal Road as a success intellectually, it can’t be one for me subjectively. This is the reason I generally avoid work of this ilk and why I’m sure most who feel the same do too. Olson has crafted an extremely personal work that speaks from the heart about life as a lesbian too often allowing attraction to rule her within the borders of an adopted city she obviously loves. I’m certain it speaks to audiences that relate to similar existences. It probably also speaks to those familiar with San Francisco or well-versed enough in cinematic lore to recall the classic film moments mentioned. I’ve sadly never been to Frisco nor have I seen Vertigo.
That right there places me at a distinct disadvantage while my inability to watch it unfold through her eyes fails unless I close mine to treat the exercise as a lecture without visual accompaniment. It’s only when I did this that I could focus long enough to process Olson’s story and let it wash over me with its segues through history on both a macro and micro scale. But can you still call it a movie if you do this? The medium’s specifically a visual one so leaving that sense behind is a failure on my part to enjoy the artwork as a whole. And when it gets so bad that I wish for additional school-like lessons with graphics to hold my hand, I’ve definitely lost the point.
I think I’d enjoy hearing Olson speak live, though. Listening to her talk about life in this anecdotal way educates without patronization. How she teaches America’s past through the transgressions committed by our ancestors we’ve been conditioned to forget is invigorating and fresh. Give me a documentary where she’s in frame pointing at what she’s talking about, reenact her stories with relevant animation, or play clips of the movies she’s talking about with side-by-side comparisons and I’d be with her every step of the way. But that’s not the point of The Royal Road‘s construction. It may actually be the exact antithesis of her point. My cognizance of this reality is why I cannot label it bad. I simply can’t in all honesty say I liked it either.