Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road isn’t only a sort-of sequel to the filmmaker’s The Joy of Life, but a remake, using still shots of San Francisco as the visual template for a reflective voiceover, which ranges across an array of topics, but generally stays confined to Olson’s own sexual desires, cultural interests, and historical information regarding California’s geography. The attempt is fascinating: Take an identical visual approach to shooting San Francisco’s landscapes and urban spaces as the first film and see how the topography, and Olson’s personal life, has changed in roughly a decade since.
It’s also exceedingly private, in the way that Olson’s words, spoken by herself except for a brief cameo by playwright Tony Kushner, largely reveal failed, or at least stalled, relationships. Toward the beginning, Olson announces her intent to follow the El Camino Real from San Francisco to Los Angeles, to reach a long-lost lover’s door. While the locations are beautifully photographed in 16mm, the film’s discursive narration is deliberately abstruse, especially in its dubious connections between urban single life and California settlements from hundreds of years ago.
Olson jumps from talking about her own desperation in relationships to the historical trajectory of manifest destiny as if such stream-of-consciousness postulations were inherently daring simply because of their potential audacity. In fact, once the definition of “road” literally appears on screen at the film’s end, accompanied by hopeful, folk-guitar strings, the cumulative effect is altogether perplexing, as it’s difficult to tell if Olson’s trying to upend clichés or settle for them.
Words like “hypnotic” or “intoxicating” have been used by major critics to describe Olson’s aesthetic, but it’s more in line with shoegaze, as Olson’s voiceover lacks a melodic contrast that would potentially lend it a dreamier presence. These readings are understandable since the primary cinematic reference points in The Royal Road are Sunset Boulevard and Vertigo, two of the most psychologically determined films of Hollywood’s classical era. Furthermore, Olson calls Sunset Boulevard a “classic allegory of failed ambition along these figurative boulevards of broken dreams,” but the voiceover, which is both monotone and without emotive variance, flattens the aesthetic’s potentially entrancing effects.
As to what Olson’s doing with these tensions, it’s much more difficult to say. At one point, she explains how “L.A. is so completely different than San Francisco,” an assessment which lends itself to accusations of hyperbole since she doesn’t meaningfully elucidate this claim. Olson does little to interrogate her own perspective in ways that would make such an assessment register as more than glib musings; if Los Angeles and San Francisco are so different, The Royal Road never makes a convincing argument why.
The film’s most visually compelling passages explain alterations to California’s topography, like the renaming of the Junipero Serra highway or the redrawing of maps during the 19th century, but these segments, while engagingly defined with animation and examples, unfold without a clear purpose as it relates to Olson’s erotic desires and aren’t particularly informative, given their rootedness in historical fact rather than interpretation, provided that you’re up to speed on major land agreements and disputes in American history. Near the film’s end, Olson wonders why she feels consistently compelled to confess, but once again the terming is something of a misnomer. The Royal Road is less a confession than an abdication of authorial responsibility.