Voluptuously chatty and wistfully searching, Jenni Olson’s The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2014) are twin meditations on time, landscape, desire, and cinema, if twins delivered nine years part. Despite the almost decade abeyance, Olson’s marveling, wide-eyed images of sleepy apartments, quiet factories, and depopulated, signposted streets have not dramatically changed: studiously shot 16mm lovelies awash in sun and street lights—kissed by magic hour’s glow, shaded by downy clouds, hazed by San Francisco’s atmospheres of fog and light. Reading from his “The Changing Light” in The Joy of Life, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is her bard (and character witness): “with sharp clean shadows making the town look like it had just been painted.”
Her movies could be your life, Olson seems to feel. Or at least resemble your life, or a life suffused with beauty, ideas, thoughts, and film. Both films reference Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the history of California, and the love life of an unnamed kinda-Casanova, all unfurled in a confessional, cerebral, film-obsessed monologue that, diaristically told, seems surely based on Olson’s, or someone else’s, true experiences. Yet, the movies shimmer with grander emotions and deeper images, Olson’s narration enchanting like the spells of wizard . With a simple word or a few simple words, light suddenly seems more resplendent and prismatic then it was just a moment before Ferlinghetti’s poem. What a little talk about moonlight can do.
Fortunately—and fittingly—the pair will grace big screens this weekend, giving audiences a chance to see the two, if not back to back, at least closely together. The Joy of Life will screen tonight, Friday, April 24 as part of BAM’s “The Vertigo Effect” series; The Royal Road closes out the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real on Sunday, April 26. (Jenni Olson will be on hand for &As at both screenings.) And yet, if The Royal Road wasn’t just released and playing at Art of the Real, it, and not The Joy of Life, would be the the more fitting selection for Vertigo Effect.
Narrated by Harriet ”Harry” Dodge—gravelly voiced, someone who’s known sadness and told her story before—The Joy of Life shares the pensive and lusty recollections of a butch lesbian living and aching for love in San Francisco. But then it shifts into an elegiac review of the Golden Gate Bridge as a terminal point for over 1,600 people since its construction. Life is close to death, joy not far from pain, the end of a film akin to the end of a life, muse Olson (and Dodge) as they contemplate Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, sex, friendship, and desire.
But where The Joy of Life also reflects on a single scene from Hitchcock’s psycho-sexual masterwork, The Royal Road internalizes the film whole, willingly, but also—let’s be fair—inescapably getting caught up in Vertigo’s mad map of lust, place, and history. Subtly wider in scope than The Joy of Life, The Royal Road travels up and down its titular highway (El Camino Real), which linked colonial Spain’s chains of missions to one another; which, in the film, links Olson’s life with that of a blasé lover in LA; which in turn links her life with California’s history; which links this road and its missions to Vertigo (recall Jimmy Stewart’s character pursuing Madeline to San Francisco’s Mission Dolores) which in turn connects with Olson’s movie, named, of course, after this road it travels up and down across time, place, and memory.
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.