This video essay and the below text was initially published by Fandor Keyframe in March 2016.
Jenni Olson’s essay films The Joy of Life and The Royal Road are not made for the purpose of film analysis, but are rather affecting and wide-ranging explorations of human connection, sexuality, suicide and memory. Often focusing on what has been removed or altered, Olson has a particular fascination with early screenplay drafts. This idea of a potential essay film nestled in another essay film catches my attention. In this video, I have taken the audio tracks from both The Joy of Life and The Royal Road and edited them into two short video essays.
In both cases I have replaced the landscape cinematography of Olson’s films with footage from the films being discussed in narration. The first of these videos looks at the suicide in two films by Frank Capra, and the second at the allure of San Francisco as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
A point of intersection: the Nate Starkman Building on Mateo Street in Los Angeles appears in both The Royal Road and Thom Andersen’s seminal essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. In the former, the building’s painted signage, now faded (“Starkman” is barely legible), fits neatly into a narrated chapter defending nostalgia. In the latter, it’s a somewhat nostalgic cinematic quotation, Andersen using a clip from Sidney Lumet’s 1986 thriller The Morning After. The meaning of each separate depiction of the Nate Starkman building is less interesting here than the approaches taken by each filmmaker. Andersen uses film clips to discuss real landscapes and locations; Olson does almost the inverse: the narrator discusses specific films over newly shot landscape imagery (in stunning 16mm cinematography courtesy of DP Sophie Constantinou).
In Olson’s work the rumination on cinema serves not only as a point of insight or analysis but also a reflection on the way film intermingles with our own memories. The narrator in The Joy of Life, voiced by Harry Dodge, misremembers the structure of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, believing that the film opens on James Stewart’s attempted suicide when, in fact, it happens almost exactly in the middle of the film. In The Royal Road, many films are cited: The Children’s Hour, Sunset Boulevard and Brief Encounter among them. The most potent citation is one that echoes Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, that being an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Olson queries the Proustian connection in the name Madeline alongside an observation about the film’s geographic structure, as Scotty and Madeline drive down El Camino Real to Mission San Juan Bautista, mirroring the supposed route taken by Fr. Junípero Serra.