By Hans Pedersen, October 2016 Issue.
Experimental filmmaker Jenni Olson’s award-winning feature, The Royal Road, could easily be described as an “art film.” In fact, it’s about as artsy as you can get.
The movie is composed entirely of shots of California landscapes, coupled with voiceovers as she speaks of women once loved and lost, and how history gets forgotten.
The writer, director and producer spoke about her acclaimed film in a phone interview with Echo prior to its screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
“The film itself, in many ways, is about film,” Olson said. “It’s ingrained in the sensibility, in the compositions, in the long static takes, I’m trying to make room for the audience, the viewer, to have feelings and to bring their own associations to what’s happening in the image.”
Described as “deceptively simple,” her movie consists of 16-millimeter shots of landscapes in different urban areas of California, combined with Olson’s voice-over monologue.
Indeed, her skilled frame compositions appear static, but upon closer inspection, the images in her movie are actually moving postcards, brimming with the minutia of urban activity, including swaying trees, distant traffic distant cranes hauling boxcars in the background. Olson’s sound design, which she describes as impressionistic, keeps the ambient sound quiet, almost once removed.
“You can bring your own associations to the film because it has so much space in it,” she explained. “I think the imagery is meant to be poetic and an expression of affection for California and the landscape.”
There’s a certain hypnotic quality to her stories about California’s forgotten history, her own butch identity and the allure of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Shedding light on Spanish colonization and the Mexican-American war, is part of Olson’s movie is a critique that highlights the true history of the region that people prefer to forget.
“The idea that it’s the land of pioneers and visionaries … is a nice romantic idea,” Olson elaborates. “That’s a great way to cover up that President Polk offered Mexico $30 million for the territory, and when they said no, provoked a war to take it. Of course that’s something we don’t want in the historic memory.”
Indicting Americans for gaps in our collective memory banks, there’s also an intimacy to her discussions, especially as her character talks about passions for unattainable women and private desires.
The filmmaker’s poetic lines and overall tone are partly influenced by French poet Jules Laforgue, the inventor of free verse.
Olson’s voice has a somber, almost elegiac quality. She said her melancholy tone is intended to express “loneliness” and poignancy.
Additionally, Olson said she likes the technique of using the persona of a character who pursues unattainable women.
“There really is something about that [idea of] taking on a persona … where you can be a lot more vulnerable and express these things,” she explained, pointing out that this is not a taxicab confessional, but rather, truth filtered through fiction.
Sharing her stories about love for other women, she said, is also a way to help elevate the visibility of our community.
“As a butch lesbian, one of the things that drives my filmmaking is the sense of wanting to express my unique perspective,” Olson explained. “As is the case with so many queer films, they make us feel less alone.”
“I want other butch dykes to see it,” she says about her new movie.
With a background as a critic, festival programmer and film historian, Olson has also been documenting LGBTQ film history for years and is the author of books like The Queer Movie Poster Book.
“When I first came out I read Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet and I feel like it saved my life,” she said, adding that she began seeing all the movies he cataloged, which helped her “feel less alone.”
She was inspired to become a filmmaker when she first saw Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March back in 1985, and began making experimental films since the early 1990s.
One of the many aspects of Olson’s career that makes her unique is her preference to shoot in 16mm film. She says the quality of the image resonates with her generation of folks who grew up watching celluloid, before the advent of high-quality digital video. And while it can be a challenge, she says the 16mm format is worth the trouble.
Her technique is to write and shoot simultaneously, sometimes with a preconceived idea of how image and sound will marry, while other times she and her editors make those decisions in the editing room where a “certain magic” happens.
The Royal Road may be challenging for viewers who don’t like to sit still, but it offers viewers the space to use their imagination and create their own associations.
“You’re sitting there looking at 65 minutes of landscape shots,” the filmmaker acknowledges. “There are no people, [but] you do have this sense of this character wandering in this landscape.”
The result is a lovely and entertaining product that’s ultimately a meditation on history, desire and film.
The Royal Road is now available On Demand and on DVD. For more information, visit royalroadmovie.weebly.com.