The Royal Road Screen 16 articles

The Royal Road


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  • The problem with The Royal Road is one of execution rather than conception. Olson’s ideas are all worth contemplating, but each one is given to us with insulting condescension or else explicated so directly that the subtext evaporates.

  • ...The problem is that the images, while attractive, are often completely removed from Olson’s voice-over. When they come together, as in a brief section called “In Defense of Nostalgia,” the film works. Much of the time, the editing seems poorly paced, imitative of James Benning’s landscape films without his grasp of rhythm and duration. Olson’s voice-over is also too dry for such personal material, especially in the first section...

  • Olson’s wan but well-intentioned film proves how the essay genre can become more than slightly ponderous in the wrong hands. The Royal Road, which possesses a reasonably interesting premise, is sunk by an overly schematic structure.

  • Words like “hypnotic” or “intoxicating” have been used by major critics to describe Olson's aesthetic, but it's more in line with shoegaze, as Olson's voiceover lacks a melodic contrast that would potentially lend it a dreamier presence.

  • Ms. Olson’s images are often captivating, but too often undercut by the aforementioned aspiring-to-the-dialectical voice-over, which is awkwardly written, and delivered with a lack of affect that grows tedious over the course of an hour. This writer-director also relies heavily on the tactic, familiar to postmodern-studies doctoral candidates and those who have to live with them, of alternating pained personal anecdotes with vaguely condescending history lectures.

  • In form and content, The Royal Road makes unmistakable allusions to the work of Chris Marker, just as Olson’s wry, uninflected voiceover and disquisitions on cinematic iconography recall Thom Andersen and Mark Rappaport.

  • The Royal Road does not explicitly connect Olson’s private experience to the shared public histories of California. But as she allows them to drift alongside each other, we begin to sense an affective logic, one hardened into physical argument by Olson’s sharp, exacting montage and geometrical framing. The film is an assemblage of experience at multiple levels of abstraction.

  • [The Royal Road is] a more complex work [than Olson's The Joy of Life], weaving the strands of colonial history, San Francisco nostalgia (as symbolised by the elusive character of Madeleine in Hitchcock’s Vertigo) and a humorous exploration of butch romantic desires, foiled expectations, obsessions and travails as Olson’s voice over recounts her trips from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in pursuit of mostly unavailable women.

  • Olson's dialectical approach suggests the formal practices of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, two filmmakers who've documented monuments, landscapes, and other layers of meaning as a way of confronting the past. To call her methods "minimalist" would be to miss the point, not when sound and image are used so richly to make sense of the self between the interstices of history and geography.

  • The thornier [Olson's] digressions grow, the more visible the history dotting those paths becomes. Soon they’re no longer hills and highways, but mementos of the Mexican-American War, the production of Vertigo, and Olson’s own checkered romantic past. Every picturesque frame complements her cinephilic nostalgia. Every self-deprecating joke she tells reverberates with those arid vistas. The movie is a delight.

  • The Royal Road is a sensual, seamless, and infectious film. In one moment, there is a shot of an old wall sign. Pay attention and you’ll see it: “The Joy of Life,” it reads. Olson doesn’t forget her past, and neither do her films, as if full of feelings, thoughts, and images, The Joy of Life grew up and The Royal Road is what it became.

  • Two hundred and fifty years of history converge poetically and almost seamlessly. The Royal Road traces the residue of colonization and war and gestures toward their role in shaping the California landscape and mindset. The film is neither blunt nor evasive and wanders through subjects like a confident and relaxed traveler, urging viewers along.

  • [The director's] constant voiceover plays over images of Los Angeles and San Francisco, short and poetic takes captured by Olson herself and which seek, as she describes it, to preserve her most beloved urban spots in the amber of cinema. What unites all of these fragmented materials is that they're equally pierced by transience, by the faultiness of memory, at both the national and individual levels.

  • In segueing so seamlessly from broad overviews of American history — at one point an animated map is deployed to illustrate the territory Mexico had to cede after its defeat by the U.S. in 1847, in our nation's largely forgotten "first foreign war" — to candid first-person disclosures, Olson reveals a great talent for shaping a narrative and arriving at fruitful detours. Her gift for storytelling is rooted in her cinema-glutted childhood, her memories of which are worth quoting at length...

  • 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.

  • Containing gorgeous landscape photography and shot on Super 16mm by cinematographer Sophie Constatinou, Jenni Olson’s essay film The Royal Road mixes documentary with personal narrative and an experimental impulse. Like nearly every good model in its genre, this is a digressive, associative work that is driven by reflection — in this case, on history, romantic desire, the landscape, nostalgia, and even the lives of libertines.

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