Like Los Angeles Plays Itself by way of Ross McElwee, Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road surveys the landscape of Southern California as a way of exploring her past relationship troubles. That may sound like the sort of arty navel-gazing that many viewers are allergic to, but this is an utterly transfixing piece of work. The 16mm cinematography of Los Angeles and San Francisco is gorgeous and hypnotic, and it’s more than just pretty pictures. Olson’s narration works in concert with the architecture and geography, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. She purposefully establishes herself as a “shadow” — her voice is heard but she is unseen, and in fact, the whole film is bereft of human presence. She is, in a way, becoming the film, holding a conversation with the audience. Olson talks not just about her often tempestuous romantic misadventures but about Vertigo, the Spanish conquest and subsequent American annexation of the American Southwest, nostalgia and how we process it and many more ideas.
These may seem disconnected, but there’s a strong vein of memory and what we choose to hold on to and what to let go of. The “Royal Road” of the title, El Camino Real, is a string of historical monuments dotting the West Coast that mark the route Spanish evangelists took in establishing missions during the 17th and 18th centuries. California has turned emblems of imperialism into positive symbols. Olson wonders how much of her nostalgia for the past is honest, what she can and can’t trust about her memory. Hence, she relates to the plot of Vertigo. Yet she makes the unusual move of defending nostalgia, untrustworthy though it may be. Her argument is compelling, whether or not one finds it convincing. Equal parts travelogue, memoir, historical treatise, philosophical musing, and film criticism, The Royal Road is one of the best, most unusual docs playing the fest.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2015.