The Royal Road: GSFF Review

The Royal Road

Esme Betamax | @betamaxer

In the run-up to Glasgow Short Film Festival’s online edition (17th – 23rd August) we have been treated to DIVE IN cinema. It’s a week of films curated by Africa in Motion, Alchemy Film & Arts, Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, Central Scotland Documentary Festival, Dardishi, GSFF, IberoDocs, LUX Scotland, Matchbox Cineclub, Scottish Queer International Film Festival, Screen Argyll and Take One Action.

My pick from this selection is The Royal Road by Jenni Olson. Screening five years after its initial release, it has a peculiar resonance with 2020. It is a diary of a road trip and a history lesson. Narrated by Olson, it is an account of self-discovery and self-reflection of a type common in the gay/queer community, and now popping up in the mainstream (Hannah Gadsby; Mae Martin). Olson cuts through the layers of history in San Francisco and the Royal Road (AKA El Camino Real), reflecting as she goes, and using cinema as her reference points. She likes to show her workings and provides multiple links to the history of the area on the film’s website, aware that her audience will likely want to dig a little deeper.

The Royal Road

Everyone has some sense of what San Francisco is like. It has seeped into the common psyche through music, literature and film. But whether you draw inspiration from Armistead Maupin or The Grateful Dead, it’s cinema that does the heavy lifting.

Film locations are a funny beast. Some iconic: The Golden Gate Bridge in It Came from Beneath the Sea; some eerie: the former Sutro Baths in Harold & Maude; some pretending to be elsewhere altogether: San Francisco City Hall appears in Raiders of the Lost Ark as a DC government building. And many that all but the most dedicated fans would walk past without a second thought.

The Royal Road

Olson seeks out corners of the landscape where there is beauty in the mundane, and captures them on 16mm to add to her collection. Sometimes they have significance to classic cinema. Other times they are simply a beautiful image. They are a visual accompaniment to her story of unrequited love. San Francisco is known to be densely populated, but these images are captured at quiet times, with sometimes only the slightest bit of movement captured. This is why The Royal Road feels connected to 2020 — urban space depopulated.

The Royal Road is nostalgic, and Jenni Olson has romantic tendencies. When that is paired with a fear of innovation, it can develop into conservatism. That’s when she brings in Tony Kushner. As the only point in the film when someone other than the director speaks—over halfway through—it feels striking. Olson refers to it as a “voiceover cameo”. It’s an excerpt from his lecture “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures.” (City Arts & Lectures. San Francisco. 28 Apr. 1998). He warns of the perils of nostalgia, and she takes this very personally, as though he has exposed her. It’s a brilliant move to include his criticism and evaluate it. She realizes that although she has a deep love of the old, she does accept the certainty that the urban landscape will change over time. She no longer feels the need to fight it, because she has that piece of time and place preserved in her collection. 

The landscape of “pure industrial beauty” never ceases to change, but for the most part, buildings outlive people, and that perspective shift sets the film’s tone. It’s reminiscent of Chris Ware’s Building Stories: people are fleeting but the building remains. The Royal Road is as much of a love letter to a place as it is a love letter to a person.

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Esme Betamax is a writer and illustrator. Often found in the Cube Microplex. Favourites include: I ♡ Huckabees, Where the Buffalo Roam, Harold & Maude, Being John Malkovich and In the Shadow of the Moon.


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