Much like her 2005 debut, “The Joy of Life,” Jenni Olson’s sophomore feature, “The Royal Road,” is a poetic film essay that uses landscape photography and voiceover narration to ruminate on a wide swath of topics — all historical, whether first-person romantic, exploring California’s Spanish colonial past, or referencing Hollywood’s cinematic back pages. Experimental in its docu/narrative hybrid yet emotionally accessible, this beguiling meditation is a marginal commercial proposition that should nonetheless win over more adventurous viewers and programmers. Showcases for gay and avant-garde filmmakers should be prominent supporters as pic travels the fest circuit.
The title refers to the tangle of local roads, now supplanted by freeway, that once constituted the primary route between Northern and Southern California. El Camino Real was the territory’s first and most important thoroughfare, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma missions as Spain laid claim to more and more Western terrain over a 150-year period before Mexico won its independence — only to lose the same areas to U.S. annexation a couple of decades later, with California gaining official statehood in 1850.
That distant history snakes through Olson’s digressive monologue, which touches on the whole saga of American “manifest destiny,” its progress illustrated via map animation. There’s also mention of individual players including Friar Junipero Serra, whose long-anticipated canonization has just been announced by the Pope, but who is much less venerated by those who view him as a personification of the more brutal consequences of Spanish conquest on native peoples.
This history comprises a sort of grand backdrop to much of “The Royal Road’s” more first-person, presumably autobiographical musings. Olson sees in the land- and cityscapes depicted here a topography of desires, from the Hollywood ones in classic films like “Sunset Blvd.” and “Vertigo” (whose locations are glimpsed here) to her own “odyssey(s) of unrequited desire,” particularly one with a Los Angeleno named Juliette, the latest “crazy girl I’ve fallen for.” Casanova’s memoirs, the irresistible pull of nostalgia (argued against by Tony Kushner in a lecture excerpt), and the romance of San Francisco itself are additional elements that slip in and out of the narration’s flow. While this free-ranging agenda might easily have seemed overly random or pretentious, Olson’s confessional tenor lends it all a stream-of-consciousness intimacy.
These spoken thoughts, anecdotes and lessons provide a restless counterpoint to the film’s visual surface, consisting of d.p. Sophie Constantinou’s oft-striking shots of exteriors all along the coastal “road.” Even more familiar sights here gain a freshness of perspective that eschews postcard views to articulate the human presence that has shaped them, even though people are almost entirely absent onscreen.
The appealing color and grain of these stationary 16mm images recalls (as did “Joy of Life”) the landscape cinema of James Benning, although Dawn Logsdon’s editing falls short of his challenging shot durations. Olson also shares Benning’s device of heightening attention by using only ambient sound; there’s no music here until the final credits. While the pic could hardly be smaller or quieter by conventional standards, assembly on all levels is serenely accomplished.