A new cinematic essay on topics as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the pursuit of unavailable women, and the colonization of California by Junipero Serra will have its San Francisco premiere at the Roxie Theater tomorrow at 7 p.m., a day after the pope is set to canonize the Spanish priest in a move that has faced controversy for Serra’s involvement in the brutal mistreatment of Native Americans in California.
The Royal Road, experimental documentarian Jenni Olson’s latest film, features voiceover by the director and playwright Tony Kushner set against 16mm shots of “deceptively simple” urban California landscapes. Stream-of-consciousness narration focuses on “nostalgia, the pursuit of unavailable women, butch identity, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo” as well as Serra’s role in the creation of California’s Spanish missions.
Mission Local spoke with Olson on her film process, her choice of subjects for the film, and the controversy surrounding Serra and the Catholic Church’s attempts to portray him in a benevolent light.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Mission Local: Tell us a bit about what drew you to these themes.
Jenni Olson: I’m an experimental documentary filmmaker with a kind of unique approach. I always make 16 mm urban landscapes as my basis for my documentary films, and living in California I’ve always been interested in the history of Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War.
I just kind of landed on the idea of El Camino Real as a good structural device for telling that story, since it was this thoroughfare that was used to colonize California and establish the missions by Junipero Serra and his colleagues. So I have landscape shots of the road itself and things associated with that story as well as just kind of simple mundane landscapes of the city.
I look into Junipero Serra specifically and talk about how he has been held up as this heroic figure who “settled” California, but then in fact he can also be seen as a villain.
ML: What’s your take on Serra and the canonization? Your thoughts on him as a figure?
JO: It’s been interesting because I finished the film in December of last year and then got ready to head off to Sundance in January this year, and really the day that I was leaving to go to the Sundance Film Festival the pope announced his intent to canonize Serra. [It was] this very timely thing that I was having the world premiere of the film, and if anyone is the star of the film I think it’s Junipero Serra.
It’s been great to have this film sort of as a catalyst for having those conversations about legacy, and it’s fascinating right now — the LA archdiocese in particular just few months ago launched this whole PR campaign for [Serra], he even has a Twitter account.
When they initially announced, people were like up in arms, like, “You can’t canonize this guy” and I think they realized that they need to develop a PR campaign around it, generating all these stories about what a great guy he was and saying “Oh he was a friend to the Indians and the Indians loved him.”
Clearly it’s a very complicated story and it’s very hard to kind of glean what all of the different realities are, but they’re trying to push that message very strongly.
ML: So how do all these apparently disparate themes that you explore in the film come together? What’s Junipero Serra have to do with Alfred Hitchcock?
JO: I always like to mix my stories. Along with that exploration is this stream of consciousness reflection on all kinds of other topics, including Vertigo, nostalgia, and pining over unavailable women, which is just my shtick.
The main way I describe it is as a stream of consciousness meditation on this wide array of things that I’m interested in. As an artist, it’s always been my goal to tell stories that are queer stories, and as a butch dyke in San Francisco, I’m wanting to tell kind of my story, so that’s a primary thread. Then kind of mixing in other stories of especially under polled histories, in this case the Spanish colonization of California.
I’m also really interested in the Hollywood film industry, but it was really easy to dovetail talking about Hitchcock’s Vertigo with this whole story, because I always like to say living in San Francisco is like living on the set of Vertigo. In my daily life, I drive past or walk past the sets of Vertigo on a daily basis. And coincidentally Mission Dolores was the terminus of El Camino Real in Junipero Serra’s lifetime. I wrote part of the script sitting on the steps of Mission Dolores.
It has a lot of interest to a Mission audience. There are shots of the Mission, great shots of the Mission, including 17 Reasons, Mission Dolores as well. I feel like the Mission is the political heart of our city, or maybe the progressive heart of our city, and I feel like that’s where the film is coming from, speaking from both honoring the Latino heritage of the city and the neighborhood, and the state and the country, which really connects to Junipero Serra.
There is a quality of nostalgia about the film, but I also feel like I’m interested in a more radical interpretation of nostalgia as a method of connecting us to the present moment in a more thoughtful way…as a way of grounding ourselves in the present as opposed to just hurtling forward into the future.
ML: Do you think San Francisco is doing that?
JO: Yeah, and I think that discussion gets easily kind of calcified and stuck. It seems that to say it that way sounds like I’m just saying “Let’s just come to a screeching halt” and I mean the ‘pro-development’ people will be like “Oh you’re just anti-development and that’s not realistic,” and that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying there are more thoughtful ways.
ML: Speaking of nostalgia and pieces of local history, what do you think about screening at the Roxie?
JO: I’m thrilled to be screening the film at the Roxie, it’s the perfect match as a location of so much San Francisco history in general but also personally for me. When I first came to San Francisco in 1992 to be the co-director of Frameline, the Roxie and the Castro were and still are Frameline’s main venues, and I have a lot of personal love for the Roxie.
ML: Going back to the content of the film for a minute, how do you make something like this watchable and accessible to an audience?
JO: It is 65 solid minutes of landscape footage and voiceover, which is why it’s why it’s experimental, but it’s incredibly accessible — [when] it premiered at Sundance it got an amazing response.
I think, oddly enough, people are really craving some meditative space and engagement in larger ideas about the external physical world that we live in and the emotional world of ourselves and how those two things connect, and to have that in a cinematic experience — people are, it seems, really craving that.
Olson’s film will screen at the Roxie Thursday evening at 7 p.m. View the trailer below and click here for tickets.