Lines and Traces:
Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road and Peter Bo Rappmund’s Topophilia
(originally published in Cinema Scope 64)

Absolute divisions between experimental film and other contemporary cinematic forms are less and less convincing, although one persistent point of differentiation is length. The majority of avant-garde films are under 60 minutes; most are well under 30. There are various reasons for this, some of which are material, such as the often-prohibitive cost of making artisanal work, the challenges inherent in getting longer work shown. (As a general rule, the less said about short narrative films, the better. Most are “calling cards” or sketches for longer work; artists with a genuine command of the form, like Jennifer Reeder, are exceedingly rare.)

With the advent of digital image-making tools, many of the external limitations that keep films short are minimized. Nevertheless, the traditions of experimental filmmaking can often privilege economy of expression over patient elaboration of a set of ideas. What’s more, the avenues available to film artists working on the margins of the industry continue to be geared toward narrative work. It’s often the case that experimental features struggle to reach their potential public, even while historical precedent – classic works by Michael Snow, Andy Warhol, Yvonne Rainer, Ken Jacobs, Joyce Wieland, Jack Chambers, James Benning, David Larcher, Malcolm LeGrice, Stephen Dwoskin, Heinz Emigholz, Werner Nekes and Dore O., and of course Stan Brakhage – demonstrates the vitality that only the long form can provide.

The two films I’m discussing below are impressive in their own right, and they have been showing at festivals since the beginning of this year. They are still being screened, which speaks both to their enduring quality and to the slower, more gradual rollout that tends to greet long-form experimental cinema on the circuit. This is because not all film festivals show avant-garde films, even fewer screen avant-garde features, and even when such features do screen, the majority of the press corps ignores them in favour of more commercial fare.

These are films that many critics see the second time around, at the next festival, when they have the luxury of “playing catch-up” or following word-of-mouth. As a result, these films tend to meander through their festival runs at a somewhat different pace. This is a propos, since the films in question are about long journeys and discontinuous movement. They take ostensibly linear paths and traverse them with disruptive, aggregated thoughts.

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The Royal Road (2015) is Jenni Olson’s feature follow-up to her 2005 film The Joy of Life. The earlier feature focused on the Golden Gate Bridge and its history as the world’s leading landmark in terms of suicides. The film considers the personal story of a friend of Olson’s (LGBT film impresario Mark Finch) who’d jumped from the bridge. Olson placing his story alongside historical accounts of workers who died during the bridge’s construction, as well as speculation as to what it is about the bridge that has proven so seductive for those planning to end their lives. As with The Joy of Life, The Royal Road is a study of history and landscape centred on the experiential specificity of California, and Olson articulates her own (hi)story by concatenating it with broader social and political narratives.

The Royal Road is, as the title tells us, about El Camino Real, the winding, now-discontinuous north-south thoroughfare created by the Spaniards to connect their network of missions and presidios. As Olson explains, this process began in earnest with the Portolà expeditions of 1767 and 1770, during which Junipero Serra founded the missions between San Diego and present-day Carmel. El Camino Real expanded its reach to the north all the way up to Solano County (wine country, adjacent to the Napa Valley), and much of the historic El Camino Real consists of U.S. Highway 101 (although it encompasses fourteen other highways and roads). The state of California designates the original route with historical markers shaped like rust-orange mission bells.

Instigated in part by a troubled long-distance relationship that found Olson based in San Francisco and the object of her affection in L.A., The Royal Road treats the physical landscape of California as a kind of palimpsest of conflicting desires – romantic and sexual, colonial and political. In the film, Olson chooses to emphasize the various disruptions of the historic road, both through her formalist approach and her digressive storytelling. The general format of The Royal Road is one of fixed-frame shots of relative duration, all of them characterized by a tendency to keep human activity at a distance. Instead, Olson asks us to consider spatial relationships: the San Francisco Bay, a statue of Serra on a cliff overlooking a city, a winding bit of road that curls around a house like a private driveway, or a distant fragment of an anonymous freeway noteworthy only because of one of those mission bells.

As Olson provides these select views, we hear her voiceover providing both concrete historical data about the Spanish settlement of California, and her own narrative as a non-native Californian coming to adopt certain identities and images as part of her personal history. Olson describes the impact that Hollywood films such as Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950) and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) had on her, particularly while coming to terms with her gender dysphoria and nascent butch identity. In a viewing scenario that very much runs counter to Laura Mulvey’s account of “fetishistic scopophilia” in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (wherein female spectators are always positioned as secondary objects, characterized by their “to-be-looked-at-ness”), Olson describes locating herself alongside the fictional men onscreen.

And in this cinematic identification, it seems that Olson was identifying with “California” as well. As we follow the various points on the Royal Road, we hear tales of unrequited love, self-doubt, and confusion. Olson maps these emotions onto various spatial elements of California, some of them fictional, others meticulously constructed by her camera. For instance, her attraction to various women in L.A., and her particular desire for a woman she characterizes as “damaged,” is matched to desolate scenes of Hollywood Blvd., a space Olson describes as having a misguided sense of optimism. At other points, Olson’s reveries regarding travel, movement and stasis are both prompted and illustrated by the slow, patient maneuvering of shipping containers by crane at the Port of Oakland.

At other points, Olson returns to her cinematic interpretation of both her experience and the scenes before her, referencing Hollywood films such as Summertime (David Lean, 1955) and The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1961). Over time, as we watch the accumulation of cityscapes, railway yards and vistas, we begin to notice that Olson’s voiceover belies a sense of anxiety and betrayal. As she muses on California both as an historical formation and a cinematic concept, there is a bit of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe in her voice, particularly as Olson expresses her forlorn confusion at having given herself over to a woman who was explicitly unavailable.

The Royal Road does not explicitly connect Olson’s private experience to the shared public histories of California. But as she allows them to drift alongside each other, we begin to sense an affective logic, one hardened into physical argument by Olson’s sharp, exacting montage and geometrical framing. The film is an assemblage of experience at multiple levels of abstraction. On first glance, The Royal Road resembles work by James Benning or John Gianvito, but it has a bit more in common with the fragmented personal essays of Patrick Keiller (Robinson In Space [1997]; Robinson In Ruins [2010]) and Deborah Stratman (In Order Not to Be Here [2002]; O’er The Land [2009]). Olson’s art is one in which research and hard data can take their place as nodes within an artistic structure that compels believe not through argumentation but by the generation of a shared foundation of empathy, a kind of mapped terrain of love, loss, and possibility.

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Much like 2010’s Psychohydrography, his experimental featurette exploring the complex journey of water from the Sierra Nevada through the state of California to the Pacific Ocean, Peter Bo Rappmund’s latest film Topophilia explores the changes that human beings exact upon the landscape in order to achieve certain ends. (Rappmund discusses his work in an interview with Phil Coldiron in Cinema Scope 53.) However, the differences between the two films can be parsed, in part, by looking critically at the somewhat grandiose titles with which Rappmund labels his environmental studies.

The language is technical, but in a stilted, orotund way, the terms imaginary but their meaning immediately discernible from the Greek and Latin roots. In this regard, one is reminded of earlier experimental features such as William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) or even Steven Soderburgh’s Schizopolis (1996), films that are in part about the interface between human behaviour and the cinematic process. But in the case of Rappmund’s films, we are observing the evidence of previous decisions about how to harness resources, how they should be transported or allocated, and how these largely invisible decisions leave wide scars upon the earth. So human behaviour, although sometimes visible in the distance, not unlike in The Royal Road, is an anterior function, mostly seen by the construction of aqueducts, sluices, bridges and pipelines. Secondarily, Rappmund shows us the environmental impact that results from these built interventions. Some of it is benign, while other parts of it clearly borrows against the future, creating instability that will be someone else’s problem further down the line.

“Psychohydrography” is, as the title implies, about the lines written across a space (California) by water, and how it creates a kind of mental space, either (or both) in the experience of that space or in the viewing of the film Rappmund creates. By contrast, Topophilia, in its most fundamental terms, is about the love of a place. It is a term that gained traction from its use by Gaston Bachelard in his The Poetics of Space, and was also a featured concept in the poetry of John Betjeman. However, in the context of this film, Rappmund may be drawing out a particular irony inherent in the term.

The Greek topos, which means a figure or theme in rhetoric, is an ideational place, a mental bookmark of sorts. We move our eyes along the surface of a text and locate topoi on which to rest our thinking, and these become categories for other, more complex thoughts. In more common parlance, we have come to understand topos, “the place,” as inseparable from topography and the topological, from mapmaking and from the surfaces of the terrain. Whether or not it is accurate, topophilia implies not just a love of place but a love for a sense of place, which may or may not correspond to a profound experiential understanding of that place. Compared with “psychohydrography,” topophilia could refer us to a shallow-skimming but nevertheless powerful claim on the very surface of a place – a desire or a fetish for the ground itself, to the exclusion of what lay beneath it.

This perfectly expresses the subject of Rappmund’s film, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. After all, this is a transport system for crude oil, which is taken out of the depths of the earth and brought to the surface, where it becomes a useful commodity. The oil, traces of millions of years of geological history, has no use value until it is pulled up and sent along the shallow topography of Alaska, to a destination where it can finally be refined. What Rappmund shows us, as we follow the pipeline, is a sort of bobbing, snaking metal mark etched upon the landscape, an industrial analogue to a Christo running fence or a Richard Serra tubular Cor-ten wall. It traverses various terrains with no discrimination, and its reflective exterior belies the black viscosity inside.

As with Rappmund’s water film, Topophilia is shot with a time-lapse method, which produces a kind of staccato step-printing effect. Motion is halting and fidgety, since the missing digital frames produce a kind of live-action animation reminiscent of the days of pre-cinema. Rappmund slowly moves his camera along the length of the pipeline and displays the results as a series of rapid-fire still images, so that the movement seen in Topophilia is a cognitive collaboration between the filmmaker and the viewer. That is, we observe the fact of the images’ stillness, but the individual images continue to replace one another quickly enough to allow us to impute “movement” to them.

This is more than just a keen method of imagemaking, although Rappmund’s formal approach certainly offers purely visceral pleasures – the crystal clarity of HD video combined with the whirligig judder of the phenakistoscope. But more to the point, Topophilia employs this means of depiction because we are following the progress of a still object across a long and changing landscape. Our vision is moving, but the landscape itself does not move. While it is an error to say that the ground is merely inert, the environmental and tectonic shifts of the earth are so gradual as to barely register to the naked eye. To really observe them, humans must adjust to a radically different time frame, one within which humanity itself is something of a compressed blip. In some sense Rappmund’s camera emulates that alternate time frame.

Simultaneously, Topophilia is a concrete document of a massive human intervention into the landscape. Even as the film’s form acknowledges our fundamental difference from seasonal, geological, or tectonic time, Rappmund traces the Trans-Alaska Pipeline as a massive delineation across this space, one that changes it irrevocably. What’s more, we know that the pipeline only tells part of the story. It is a conduit, a hollow channel. It is the oil inside, extracted from the earth, that is the purpose for this pipeline.

Topophilia shows the vicissitudes of the pipeline, as it cuts across Alaska, defining spaces that would have been vast undifferentiated tundra before its creation. But we also see how much of the pipeline responds to the terrain itself, ducking back underground for long stretches, “visible” only because of large mile-marker signs. At times, the line is completely invisible to Rappmund’s camera, subsumed by valleys or surrounded by refinery works. But the point is, we know it is still there, and what we are looking at is a location predicated on the pipeline’s presence. Heidegger wrote that the building of a bridge was the condition for giving a river two sides we would henceforth consider as its banks. Topophilia is a work of gentle ecopolitics. It seems to insist that, as creatures of late capitalism, it has been our abuse of the planet that has largely defined it as an object of desire.