The Royal Road

Movies are a window on the world. They make us look at that world in new and unexpected ways. That’s the classic interpretation of film as a socially relevant art form. But movies themselves can also serve as a way to look at ourselves. That is one of the things Jenni Olson does in her almost hypnotic essay film The Royal Road.


The Royal Road is a contemplative cinematic essay consisting exclusively of 16mm footage (made by Olson over several years) of urban California landscapes. These sober and often motionless shots serve as the starting point for freely meandering reflections on topics as diverse as the Mexican American War and Olson’s own sexual identity and amorous travails.


Several movies make an appearance in the voice over narration: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is the most prominent one. Olson uses the wistful plot of that classic to delve into her own nostalgia. She calls James Stewart’s investigation “a travelogue of desire”, and that is also an apt description of this essay film. Vertigo serves a roadmap for Jenni Olson: a compass on her own travels along El Camino Real between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It turns this mental road trip into a very personal dialogue with film history.


“Experiencing myself as a fictional persona has been a mode of survival for me,” Olson states in the voice over. That is the modus operandi of this essay film: it uses movies (and military history, and urban architecture) as a catalyst for Olson’s self-examination.