California has, historically, been a gleaming promise land, although one fortified in blood and conflict and built upon the broken dreams of prospectors and starlets and holy men. What the enveloping new documentary, “The Royal Road,” does, fascinatingly, is juxtapose the history of the state with the personal life of Jenni Olson, the writer/director/narrator, whose frank examination of her own existence eloquently compliments the trials and tribulations of The Golden State.
Olson initially describes herself as a “gender dysphoric tomboy,” who looked to the state as a kind of promised land, where she could claim her individuality and follow her own path to happiness. This, of course, is not what happened. The film is divided into chapters, each detailing a failed relationship of Olson’s, and the first has a particular power since it’s a long distance relationship, with Olson living in San Francisco and her lover living in Los Angeles. She traces the historic importance of the titular royal road, which connected the missions that dotted the California landscape, an endeavor that was equal parts holy and barbaric.
Olson follows the lines and contours of the state, waxing philosophical about the looping, clover-shaped highway system one minute and discussing the unfathomable fairness of imminent domain the next. All the while, she discusses her disastrous relationships, her battles with self-loathing, self-identifying (as queer), and self-acceptance. All of this, by the way, is set to nearly still images of the California landscape in a boxy 4:3 frame. These images are backed by a droning non-soundtrack and occasionally broken up by static maps or historical images that seem to have been cut and pasted from some dusty old textbook. The pace is positively funereal, like watching an icicle melt. Sometimes it dares you to keep watching, like the active inverse of Godfrey Reggio‘s films — this is all narration, zero music, and life moving at the slowest possible increments, as a way to capture today while doubling down on the past.
The experience of watching “The Royal Road,” in fact, is like you’ve gotten ahold of Olson’s diary, where she’s written down the most painfully embarrassing details of each new romantic conquest (some that barely materialize at all, vanishing like the San Francisco fog on a sunny day). There are a number of pop culture references, and an entire chunk of the movie is devoted to “Vertigo” (at one point she takes a walking tour with a date to places where the film was set), while Olson also points out Barbara Stanwyck‘s bungalow from “Double Indemnity.” It’s almost achingly personal, and oftentimes you feel like you shouldn’t even be listening to this, like Olson will somehow realize just how vulnerable (and potentially silly) she’s making herself look, mentioning a thirst for love in the same breath as a lengthy aside about the Mexican American War, but it’s to her credit that she never falters, never backs down, and never second-guesses the importance of what she’s trying to do.
It’s enough to make “The Royal Road” — which runs just over an hour, though it feels much longer — hard to fault, at least on a conceptual level. Olson clearly has thought about how she wants to present this information, what she has discovered in history, and how that plays against her personal life (or vice versa). It’s always a compelling watch, no matter how sleepy it sometimes seems. It would be easy to suggest that the movie needed more visual pizzazz (more something), but that would take away from its stately power. It’s like meeting someone who just went through a break-up at a party, but instead of being able to casually squirm away, you have to listen to that person give you a detailed account of what went wrong, accompanied, for some reason, by a slideshow about the blossoming of California’s highway system and an impassioned defense of nostalgia.
Olson suggests that nostalgia isn’t just a way of tethering yourself to the past, but a way of protecting the future. It’s a beautiful argument, one that she gives way to Tony Kushner, for a brief audio interlude, taken from a lecture he gave about the dangerous power of nostalgia. Olson lives in a tomb of nostalgia. This documentary makes it perfect clear that for all her talk about the future, she’s much more comfortable clutching onto the past, whether it’s her own dating history or the tumultuous formation of California as we now know it. Even the photography of the modern day seems achy, trapped in time, like watching a broadcast beamed forward from some distant date. What keeps “The Royal Road” from feeling like its trapped in amber is the genuine heartbreak that Olson clearly feels, the rawness of her emotions and her dedicated willingness to share. This isn’t a documentary for everyone, and it will be easy for some to dismiss it as self-indulgent or dull. That response will likely be from the same people who feel that the film’s tone, combining a conspiratorial whisper with a lecture that you’d probably go see at a local library on a Sunday afternoon, is far too revealing. What it reveals, though, about the author and the state she admits to falling in love with, is where the movie’s power lies. It’s far from perfect, but it is, 100% the Golden State of Jenni Olson. [B+]