“I’m not thinking about the market. I’m thinking about what I want to say.”
Would that we could all be as eloquent as Jenni Olson. Built entirely of static, real-time 16mm panoramas, the San Francisco-based archivist and filmmaker’s new sixty-four-minute essay film, The Royal Road, investigates California history alongside Olson’s own projections of romantic happiness (and its opposite). It lulls the viewer down State Route 1—the Camino Real, or “Royal Road”—to the tune of a meandering voice-over. The Road was so named by the Franciscan monks colonizing the then-Mexican state under the guidance of the recently canonized Junipero Serra, monuments to whom Olson finds dotting the landscape during her sojourn, wherein “the painful truths of conquest are successfully buried under tales of heroic missionary priests, and grandly picturesque Spanish California ranches.”
At the end of Route 1 lies a woman with whom Olson is, according to her narration, infatuated—but the film obscures what will happen when she arrives in Los Angeles, preferring to ruminate on classic Hollywood movies like Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard. If the filmmaker has one eye crooked in the rear-view direction of history and its countless nullifications (resettlement of the indigenous population, forced annexation, and so forth), the other eye stares unnervingly forward.
Olson’s 2005 feature The Joy Of Life took a hard look at the Golden Gate Bridge, counterposing each year’s statistics for jumper suicides against what the Bridge means in municipal verbiage and state lore. The Royal Road isn’t exactly a corrective, perhaps because its maker is tracing a fault line that prohibits easy amendment of preexisting narratives, interrogating her individual propensity for nostalgia alongside a cultural lineage of re-romanticization. Why do we tell ourselves some stories ad nauseum, while working to ensure the forgetting of others? In the end, what manages to endure is obsession: Olson as an all-too-vulnerable human sum of her’s, America as the sum total of a few powerful men’s.
Steve Macfarlane Having watched your earlier films, I noticed your aesthetic is actually remarkably consistent across the work. If you don’t mind, could you tell me how this style evolved, how you “found” or developed it? And, dare I ask: Who are your influences?
Jenni Olson I certainly have a few very significant influences on my work, and also a complicated heritage of those influences. The two most significant would be Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which I saw in 1985. That really was the film that made me realize I could make films myself. So, I got my BA in Film Studies, but I was never in a film production program. I like to say I never learned how to make movies, I learned how to watch them.
So, Sherman’s March—then I saw a film called Massillon (1991), which is the name of a small town in Ohio. It’s by William E. Jones, and that was the second film that made me realize I wanted to make these kinds of things. Bill Jones studied at CalArts with James Benning. And Benning is one of the most well-known of the landscape filmmakers, though I’ve actually only seen one of his films—and not that long ago. I consider him an influence despite that, only because of his influence on Jones.
Then there’s this other, odd quality of influence: Chantal Akerman, whose short films I’d seen—and, of course, Jeanne Dielman (1975)—while in college. But I’d never seen News from Home (1977)… Have you?
SM I have.
JO Okay. Amazingly, I hadn’t! I ended up watching it the night she died—I mean, the night I heard the news that she died.
SM Oh, wow. For the first time?
JO I was shocked. For years people said to me—and this is kind of an embarrassing confession—“Oh, The Joy Of Life is so much like Akerman’s News from Home.” And I’d counter with, “Yeah, yeah,” but always thinking, Really? Then I watched it and realized what I had mistakenly thought of as News from Home was Hôtel Monterey. I don’t know how that was even possible. But people would make the comparison, and I would be like, “I guess so, kind of!” Hôtel Monterey had all these interior shots—really, really long takes, with an interest in composition, light, and this durational thing. So, I always thought they meant that I, too, was working with duration, light, and shadow.
But the news of her death was so sad and shocking, just horrible. I watched News from Home that night and was amazed. I think of her influence in that very specific way, which also came, again, through Jones and Massillon, and other filmmakers who have been influenced by her or taken that approach.
Another filmmaker I admire is Patrick Keiller, who isn’t as well-known here. He’s British and makes these amazing films that consist entirely of landscapes and voice-over.
SM I only know his Robinson in Ruins… As I was acquainting myself with your work, obviously the thought of Akerman crossed my mind—of course, it does happen sometimes where it’s not exactly influence, but rather kinship. She influenced so many people. I mean, who wasn’t devastated by her death? Anyway, I was actually going to ask you about William E. Jones—he’s credited as your director of photography for Blue Diary, is that right?
JO Yeah, that’s right.
SM I was curious because his forms range over the work I have seen—which, admittedly, might be a paltry selection on my part. But it’s a style you two found together, right? I feel it’s a bit against-the-grain of whatever was popular in independent cinema in the ’90s.
JO Oh, yeah. And his films—again, particularly Massillon—were even more challenging than mine to audiences. Then, of course, Benning’s work is even more challenging. We have both talked about an expectation that a lot of people will walk out, just not understanding the approach. But the people who do stay, they love it and say, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Film has such a great capacity as a mode of expression, and the ways that people are using it are so limited. In conventional forms, documentary or narrative, it’s such a… What are the words?
SM Beholden to Hollywood, even when people think it’s not? And with many still making films with the same starter set decades and decades later.
JO Right. There are lots of experimental filmmakers who are trying to do different things with the form. It’s the nature of experimental film, and my filmmaking, that it’s not a commercial endeavor. I’m not thinking about the market. I’m thinking about what I want to say.
SM Given your scholarship, are people surprised to find your work is so formally different from the Hollywood stuff, the movies of yesteryear that you’ve studied and written about?
JO It’s a funny thing. I feel like I go back and forth. I have my work as a LGBT film historian, and I’ve done all of these programs of vintage movie trailers because I’m also an archivist and collector. I actually own all these 35mm movie trailers and love Hollywood film history, which is conventional film history. I have my book on the history of queer movie posters. (laughter) I mean, it’s kind of my schizophrenic self; I have those interests and this other, completely different mode of art-making.
SM To take that to the next logical step, let’s continue to talk about the images. Part of the deal with Royal Road and The Joy of Life is how the images are discrete from the text, but also how and where they come together. I read one interview about Royal Road that mentions kind of a buried lede almost—the revelation that the film’s love story is a work of fiction. Which is to say, the woman who you’re talking about in the film does not exist, insofar as the way she’s presented in the voice-over. I guess my question is: How do you develop and find these texts? And beyond that, how do you unify them? Is it a long process, or pretty easy? Do you write it down on paper first, then find images to correspond, or are you inspired by locations and the text comes from that?
JO I think the writing is all drawn from personal experience. It has a truth in its emotional origins, then it’s utilized as material and mashed up in different ways. I hope part of the artistry of it is that it does have a sense of authenticity. I start off the film by saying this line about pretending to be a fictional character, and it’s this kind of… I don’t know, a device? Some of this is made up and some of it is real. There are certain parts with these fourth-wall-breaking moments, where I am clearly speaking from my “real self” in a more direct way. But these kind of reminiscences about these unavailable women are a little more poetic, a little more of a persona. They’re real in certain ways and made up in others. As an experimental filmmaker, you get to make up the rules.
JO I don’t feel constrained by whatever we say are the best practices of documentary filmmaking—like, somehow, everything has to be objectively true, which of course is suspect in the first place. (laughter) One of the things I was trying to do is convey a vulnerability, and this quality of confessing things that people don’t normally talk about. Right? Like, “Oh my god, I’m so melodramatic in my unrequited desire,” but I’m kind of laughing at myself in the process. Part of the pleasure of that for the viewer is their identification with that. “I feel that way too, and no one ever says that.” I’m being a character in my own film, and being this persona is a way of being able to do that.
SM That’s a good jumping off point too, because I was just talking to someone about your film, and they said, “Well, what does California state history have to do with her sort of yearnings?” Granted, this was sort of a comment disguised as a question from someone who hasn’t seen the movie. After scratching my head about it, my thought was that there is a through-line about using narrative to escape the present—in this case, taking real experience and then turning it into a story with the authority of a first-person narrative. That’s also a key interest of the film: the way things are re-narrativized to make sense of history, which is to say, to deny it in some way. It’s like a psychological coping mechanism. If we had monuments across state highways or at major landmarks that listed the dead, our relationship to history would be very different. Can you talk a little bit about threading those together.
JO The film has gotten a couple of negative reviews along those lines, but really only a couple. It strikes me that in one I read yesterday the critic was taking it all quite literally; it’s a very poetic approach and meant to be grappling with things, gesturing at things, and thinking about our associations with nostalgia and history, and the personal and the political. It’s allusive, but you just have to go with it. Also, as is the case with much experimental filmmaking, it’s supposed to be very open, with a lot of space for your own feelings and associations. But I think, partly, as a culture, we are not really trained in watching these kind of films. Anyway, if you take it all really literally, it may not succeed for you. People want there to be more certainty, like: What’s the point? What is it exactly that you are saying?
SM Like a college essay or something.
JO Well, I do describe it as an essay film, though it’s more than that. For me, so much of the pleasure of the film is in the text and images, literally the construction of the words in poetic ways. The spoken rhythm of the words is meant to be part of the joy of it.
SM At risk of being glib: the text is the texture.
JO Yeah, and obviously the images are not all completely literal. They do have these moments where they come together, particularly where I say, “At this moment we are standing on the spot that was the Northern terminus of El Camino Real in Junipero Serra’s lifetime…” And then this wonderful leap, to say: “The landscape looks considerably different than in 1957 when it was shot for one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever.” I love that leap—it’s about landscape, California, film history, and real history; and for me, to your earlier question, it’s also about my personal emotional connection to this place, where I live, in San Francisco. I always say living in San Francisco is like living on the set of Vertigo. I walk past Mission Delores a couple of times a week, and I have all kinds of personal and emotional associations with it.
Some of the reviews that came out when the film played at Art of the Reel in April said, “Obviously she is very influenced by Chris Marker,” because San Soleil has its own whole reflection on Vertigo, which I had kind of forgotten about honestly. He had his relationship to Vertigo, and I have mine. (laughter) On the one hand, it’s very flattering to be mentioned in the same phrase with Chris Marker; on the other, I’m not actually a huge fan of Sans Soleil. I find it to be a little too, I don’t know, over-intellectually engaged. It’s not very emotionally relevant to me. But I get that there are similarities in grappling with Vertigo as a text.
SM I don’t think there is any one relationship with Vertigo that a person is supposed to have—nor would Marker say there was. You know? I love his movies, but I would acknowledge that they’re like games, a lot of them. It’s almost best as a philosophy travelogue, which you get to leave and then go home. Not to make a super broad statement, but: part of the sweep of history he made himself available to, I think it makes people feel a little bit jealous or left out. And I’m definitely talking about myself when I say that. The Royal Road has things a little closer to the ground, that anyone can relate to—infatuation and pining, some stuff that Chris Marker might not have wanted to deal with in his films.
But are there drafts of a film like this? Is there a three-hour cut somewhere that someone whispered in your ear to trim down, or make “audience friendly”? Or do those considerations even affect your process?
JO The method I use is to write a script, which I feel is a coherent beginning-middle-end kind of thing. In this case, I think it was nineteen pages long. And then I record the voice-over. We lay that down as the bedrock foundation, then start putting the picture on top, stretching things out and putting in big pauses, that kind of thing. After I laid down the voice-over, there were definitely some things that got cut, and some new things were recorded and put in. So, there were a few small changes made in editing, but not like a conventional documentary where you have a three-hour cut of 500 hours of footage. I’m working with about five hours total because it’s shot on 16 mm film. There were lots of great shots that didn’t make it in that will hopefully make it into the next film. It’s an unusual process.
SM Have you ever found yourself cutting a shot because it was too beautiful?
JO Yes! That’s exactly what happens. I’ve learned over the years that I have to restain myself from shooting certain shots, because they are kind of too great and thus too distracting. I’m always trying to find really mundane shots that have a certain understated quality of beauty—whether it’s simply the composition, or a bit related to the light or wind, the depth of perspective.
Actually, I was just reading—because I’ve been reading all kinds of Akerman-related things—a piece from January 2014, by Nicholas Elliott. It’s his reflection in BOMB on News from Home, a short little piece, but he has this great line about that film where he says, “News from Home is a gorgeous enigma, a simple formula that causes one to reel with emotion. How can the observation of an impervious city matched with humdrum voice-over make the viewer feel so much? The answer is in how close Akerman brings one to her experience. By the time she shot News from Home in 1976, she had already raised the bar for intimacy on film...”
I think there is something really intimate about this combination of these landscapes that the would be objectively kind of remote? Or distant? And yet, they’re not; they’re very weighted, and with affection and intimacy that does connect in this oblique but unquestionable way with the intimacy of the voice-over. And I think that is what people respond to, and there’s a desire for that in the viewer. People who are open to it connect very intensely to it; it’s been amazing, as a filmmaker, to have that kind of response from audiences.
SM My mother is from the Bay Area, so even for me, some of these vistas and landscapes evoke an emotional relation—different from yours, but equal, you know? The shots conjure up all these memories and ideas, then it’s incumbent on me as a viewer to do the work of contemplating life trajectories—meaning, other people’s.
JO Right. People bring all their connections to the landscape.
There was a piece in the Sunday New York Times, this reflection on California. I’m only halfway through it because my wife took the Weekend Review with her on the train. I’ve been reading it online. But it’s this great thing about how every generation of Californians feels like they had the idyllic version of their state, and now it’s destroyed.
SM Thank god we don’t have that in New York. (laughter)
JO But it reminded me of a line in Vertigo, where Gavin Elster says—
SM “The things that spell...”
JO “... San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” We all think it was so great, and now it’s ruined. Isn’t that just the nature of being alive?
The Royal Road runs October 30–November 5, 2015, at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer, and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L, and The Brooklyn Rail.