California Eulogies: Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road and Travis Wilkerson’s Machine Gun or Typewriter?

Michael Pattison, Neil Young

The following email exchange took place between 31 August and 28 September.

NY: Late night in Sunderland. I am watching—and listening to—Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, her first-person essay-memoir-travelogue set in California. But today I’ve mainly been thinking about another current California-set romance told in (quasi-)authorial voice-over, Travis Wilkerson’s Machine Gun Or Typewriter? Both films have the air of documentary. Wilkerson’s, however, in which a pirate-radio DJ recounts a politically charged love affair, is unambiguously fictional. Nevertheless it has sufficient documentary aspects to have been selected for the International Competition at Dokufest in Prizren, Kosovo, a festival explicitly dedicated to ‘documentary and short film.’ You were on the jury there, and gave it the top prize (with a Special Mention for Olson). Regardless of fiction/documentary classifications, which I know Wilkerson rejects, the two pictures—which run 64 (Olson) and 71 (Wilkerson) minutes—have a striking amount in common, though of course there are also essential differences. Partners in a future double-bill, or should we perhaps call them ‘bedfellows’?

MP: Sorry for the late reply. I’ve had to watch both films again—in the case of Wilkerson’s because I felt I needed another viewing in order to speak critically about it, and in the case of Olson’s because I felt, as I feel now, that it’s my favourite of the year so far. I was the sole voice arguing for it to win during the jury’s deliberation in Prizren, to the point at which I pulled out what I thought might be an unanswerable trump card: that by awarding a work by a fifty-something lesbian filmmaker, we might in some way be implying a protest against the fact that five white male jurors had been put together on the same jury. In the end, Wilkerson’s film had more support, and I wouldn’t argue against its director being given any prize: on the small evidence I have—this, and Who Killed Cock Robin? (2005)—he’s a regrettably overlooked filmmaker, though I understand he’s gradually if belatedly now getting the attention he deserves, with help from your recently-filed article on him for Sight & Sound, and also, I hope, our decision in Prizren. But yes, they’re bedfellows. Machine Gun traces a fictional romance indebted to noir: a naïve, possibly unreliable narrator finds his principles firstly enriched then betrayed by a seemingly duplicitous femme fatale, whom in this instance he addresses in a second-person monologue, having first encountered her when she responded to a broadcast in which he asked listeners whether they preferred to pursue revolution with a machine gun or a typewriter. Their romance is related through a pebbledash engagement with the history of some of the buildings, monuments, parks, spaces and landmarks of Los Angeles. The Royal Road, as its title suggests, takes as its starting point ‘El Camino Real’, the 600-mile Californian thoroughfare that was built to link the 21 missions—religious and military outposts—developed by Spanish colonialists between 1769 and 1833. The road, also known as the King’s Highway, stretches via a more fragmented system of highways today from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, and incorporates San Francisco and Los Angeles. Narrating her own film, Olson takes a train along this latter portion of the route—today served respectively by Routes 280 and 101—in order to visit a romantic flame. As in Wilkerson’s film, however, it isn’t long before our narrator is engaging with side interests embedded within and partially hidden by the present-day topography: in this instance, the territorial evolution of the United States, the Mexican-American War (1846-48), nostalgia as a political act and, perhaps inevitably, the shooting locations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Incidentally, both films are made on palpably limited budgets. Wilkerson works the threadbare operations of his protagonist (half visible behind a Sennheiser e609 microphone) into the very fabric of his film, illustrating his words with stills, maps, animation, archive film and footage clearly shot off the cuff. Olson shoots San Francisco and its surrounding geography from afar, her tripod-fixed 16mm camera capturing a landscape seemingly absent of people. This is no easy trick: members of the public can prove logistically troublesome to a filmmaker wishing to arrive on a street corner and shoot, say, 30 seconds of footage with nobody to distract or deter potentially curious passers-by. All too often, these kinds of films fall foul of unseemly self-indulgence, and yet when they work—as is, I think, the case here— there’s no better form of filmmaking. Some of the compositions in Olson’s film are gorgeous—profound, even. I know you share my fascination with landscape films and, to a lesser extent, the essayistic form. What is it, for you, that makes these films ‘work’?

NY: Voice is obviously crucial, though I don’t really mean (just) the actual vocal timbre and characterisations that Wilkerson and Olson employ. Both are mature filmmakers who are able to express themselves fluently, economically and eloquently in the medium of cinema (no mean feat, and certainly not to be taken for granted these days!) with minimal distortion, interference and dilution from external forces. As you mention, both are operating within very low budgets, and I believe both are pretty much one-person-band artists who eschew the burden of creative collaboration in terms of crew, allowing them to work ‘on the fly’ on location when required, much as James Benning used to do before he started taking commissions and actually being invited on to private property. This means that the narrative/authorial voice comes through pure and clear, though with contrasting effects: Wilkerson, playing a fictional character, delivers an abrasive snarl, which is blunt and deliberately assaultive; Olson’s mellifluous musing is honey in comparison, and I could quite happily listen to hear reading out a novel by Jeffrey Archer or a speech by David Cameron. That’s a personal preference, needless to say, and my positive response to both films is also doubtless coloured by a subjective factor—namely, the fact that I’ve visited California on numerous occasions and count Los Angeles and to a lesser extent San Francisco among my favourite cities. Especially Los Angeles, and particularly the kind of Los Angeles that Wilkerson presents here—historic, multi-ethnic, radical, a battleground of ideas—and which we glimpse in crisply-composed, arrestingly stripped-down vistas. You’ve never been to California, but I’m presuming films like this—and LA Confidential, and Vertigo—make you itch to rectify the omission?

MP: Indeed. In the case of Vertigo, one of my favourite films, any waning interest I might have felt recently—a result of having not watched it in a while, as well as some kneejerk, intuitive disgruntlement with the canon—has been renewed and extended by Olson’s film, which visits some of the locations that Hitchcock and his regular cinematographer, Robert Burks, captured so vividly. In any case, I think my continued fascination with Vertigo has something to do with viewing it, before anything else, as a topographical inquiry. How that film frames the city as more than just a backdrop to the mental torture with which its protagonist, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), tussles (vertiginousness is built into the very fabric of San Francisco). It’s a landscape film, really, to the point at which Madeleine (Kim Novak) purports to locate the birth and death of a (fictional) Mission-era mistress, Carlotta Valdez, by means of dendrochronology: tracing the annual rings of a redwood tree in Muir Woods National Monument, some twelve miles north of the city. Los Angeles too has at least one sequoia tree, though they no longer grow in the area. In Wilkerson’s film, the narrator tells of how he and his lover visited the oldest museum in the city. I presume, from the sequence of taxidermic animals that follows, that it’s the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. Coming upon a giant sequoia, the narrator notes over an image of a cross-sectioned trunk: “You say, ‘This is where I stood. And this is the size of the blast I set off.’” In Vertigo, the corresponding line is: “Here I was born, and there I’ll die.” Wilkerson’s femme fatale is a more politically engaged character than Novak’s. She leaves black dahlia flowers at the scenes of her anti-government bombs. “I should’ve understood what that meant,” the narrator says, perhaps alluding to the mysteries still surrounding Los Angeles’ most famous unsolved murder, that of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, in 1947. At the end of the film, Wilkerson’s protagonist is consumed by the deep uncertainties behind his politico-amorous endeavours. Olson proposes in her film that Vertigo is a “cinematic ode to nostalgia—a cautionary tale, really, about the pull of the past and the futility of striving for things that are unreachable precisely because they only exist in the long ago.” But repeatedly, her self-inquisitive tendencies lead her back to nostalgia and its possible appeals—even uses. “We too are entangled in the pull of the past, the desperate struggle against loss,” she remarks in reference to Scottie’s plight in Hitchcock’s film. “Madeleine’s ostensible fugue state is induced by her obviously unhealthy, too vividly experienced attraction to some very particular San Francisco history.” Who can’t relate to that? It’s a delicate matter. Later, Olson quotes a lecture she once attended by Tony Kushner, in which he “eloquently railed against the bourgeois decadence of nostalgia. Being a painfully nostalgic person, I’ve felt guilty ever since.”

Everything new is better than everything old. ‘The bad new things instead of the good old things,’ wrote that great dialectical playwright, poet and theorist Bertolt Brecht. I love the rigor of that challenge. To be able to risk the satanic temptation and a retreat backward towards what’s easy, familiar and safe—the remembered past, which is always misremembered—to be always on guard against nostalgia, to be able to see the future in the bad new things.

With equal eloquence, Olson replies in defence of nostalgia:

In the same way that outdoorsy people experience feelings of calm and wholeness from spending time in nature, there are also those of us who discover a profound serenity in the manmade environment of yesterday. All of this is not simple nostalgia […] not escapist Luddite rejection of forward movement into the future, but rather an attempt at mindfulness, and a strategy in this exceptionally digital age for staying connected to the physical analogue world in which we live. By reconnecting us to our humanity, I believe nostalgia could be the very thing that saves us.

This might go some way in explaining the appeal of landscape films. In foregrounding an environment—natural, manmade or both—by whose myriad peculiarities a subjective, ruminative investigation can be prompted, landscape films engage with histories by being compelled to locate an individual perspective within them. Much like, in fact, Madeleine’s compulsion to situate Carlotta Valdez’s life against the precise age of a tree that’s thousands of years old. As Olson notes in The Royal Road: “One of the main reasons I’m so attracted to landscapes and buildings is the sense that, unlike people, they tend to endure for many generations. They possess an intimacy with the past that no person, however old, can approach.” Machine Gun or Typewriter? also boasts a multitude of sites, monuments, buildings and parks that are built to outlast a passing romantic moment: Griffith Park, the LA Times Building, the Bradbury Building and, perhaps most notably, the Mount Zion Cemetery and Chinatown. Mount Zion Cemetery, as the film tells us, was founded for the poor in East Los Angeles in 1916, when Jews were barred from so-called white cemeteries. Chinatown, we learn, was originally known as Nigger Alley. In his typically aggressive drawl, a kind of self-hating half-whisper, Wilkerson relates events behind the systematic lynching by 500 white men of 18 Chinese immigrants in October, 1871. “And so violence,” he remarks, “is inserted in the founding of the city. It’s in every brick, every shadow.” In your view, how true are such remarks, and what in particular do these two films add to the growing number of artworks made in response to their cities?

NY: We have to frame such remarks in their context, which in the case of Wilkerson’s film is fictional. The unnamed speaker is clearly intended to be a Travis Wilkerson-like individual, who shares his broad (leftist) political stance, but who because of the liberating aspects of fiction is able to express these in a manner which Wilkerson himself might not endorse or agree with. It’s a one-man, one-voice film, and the sole alternative ‘authorial’ perspective is provided by non-narrated text appearing on screen as a coda, casting a certain measure of doubt on the reliability and veracity of all that’s gone before. Was violence inherent in the inception and development of Los Angeles? To a certain degree. But when I visit Griffith Park and look down over the city that spreads out in front of me—as I have done more than once, at sunset (enjoying a vista analogous to the ultra-widescreen, vermillion-tinted dusk that kicks off Wilkerson’s previous LA story, the 2013 documentary Los Angeles Red Squad)—the violence I ponder is much more ecological than in relation to individuals. All human cities are constructed at a colossal, astronomical cost to the wildlife—animal and vegetable— that existed on this site previously. What we now call Los Angeles existed for many millennia before the advent of homo sapiens. And while of course the city has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed over the years, as so minutely chronicled by James Ellroy, Mike Davis and others, a much more pervasive and insidious violence is the daily business of economic exploitation and the brutalities of architecture (the cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of downtown’s skyscrapers and Skid Row desolation is truly Brazilian in its encapsulation of economic disparities). I’m sure Wilkerson also gives such matters appropriate consideration, but he elects to foreground specific outbursts of physical violence, those moments when the governmental/police mask slips and the authoritarian, totalitarian impulses within American—and Californian—society are revealed and glimpsed by the wider world. In terms of the growing number of films that are made in response to their cities, I know that a major motivating factor for Wilkerson—a perennially cash-strapped director—is that concentrating on his current domicile Los Angeles was cheap, convenient and fast. More and more people live in cities, and that includes filmmakers, and it’s crazy to wander across half the country when you have a rich backdrop in your own back yard. The fact that cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago—or, in European terms, Paris, London and Rome—are so familiar in cinematic terms shouldn’t disqualify them from further moving-image exploration, especially as proper political engagements with these metropolises have been so few and far between over the last century. Olson does touch upon important political matters, of course—her explanation of how a huge chunk of what’s now the western USA was, not so long ago, part of Mexico will come as news to quite a lot of people, especially those outside the country. But The Royal Road compels me not so much because of its concentration on place, but on how it manages the tricky feat of converting emotional autobiography into accessible, complex art without tipping into self-indulgence or exhibitionism. Who else in the current or recent cinematic landscape has pulled off this magical feat?

MP: Good question. At first glance The Royal Road is another entry into what is now a popular genre for many filmmakers who find themselves at the margins of a commercial industry due to their production methods, budgetary constraints, and of course their politics, sexuality, gender or race (in addition to being a middle-aged, homosexual female, Olson is also a gay rights activist). In general, the essay film emerges from a process by which an explicitly subjective viewpoint is externalised into a voice of authority, however unreliable or self-questioning. But whereas essay films commonly employ a fictionalised surrogate for the director, by means of third-party narration that creates, with varying complexity, a kind of destabilised or unlocatable authorial voice, Olson opts to narrate her own film. Though we never see her, there’s no attempt to place herself at a remove from the opinions she expresses, no disingenuous ‘othering’ effect by means of a hired narrator. I think it’s perhaps a preferential thing, but to my eyes (and ears), The Royal Road is so effective firstly because Olson’s vocal delivery is unemotional even when the content of her monologue is melodramatic, even embarrassing. She’s fully aware of the romantic clichés she’s indulging in. But it’s somehow never robotic, or monotonous. She has her own idiosyncrasies and inflections. Secondly, there’s that visual aspect too: on an imagistic level, images of a startlingly unpopulated San Francisco further enhance her authority (no one else is physically around to compete with her view on things, and the soundtrack is extremely quiet), and yet they also emphasise the essential loneliness, or self-marginalisation, of essay filmmaking. As a direct participation between a subjective self and the public sphere, essayism is inherently dialogic, advancing from a viewpoint that demands at once to be vindicated and challenged. Essayism is always tentative, speculative, ruminative: even a rhetoric that goes right for the jugular does so in the hope of some response. At times here, Olson as narrator veers into a second-person address, as if to speak directly to the object of her desire. Wilkerson also announces, in an amusingly panicked voice, that his film is “for your ears only.” Of course the intended recipients of both films’ monologues are completely fictitious, even if each director had someone in mind when writing them. But I like how both filmmakers deflect attention, by allowing themselves to investigate a history and landscape that might, should they look closely enough at it, reveal the deeper costs of collective amnesia: the genocidal girders upon which notions of American and Californian identity are founded. But none of this answers your question.

NY: I’m not sure about essayism being “always tentative, speculative, ruminative”— and certainly not when it comes to essays written as texts to be approached simply as texts, without the benefit of moving-image accompaniment. Mike Davis, who I’ve already mentioned before in this exchange, springs to mind as a writer whose essays on and book-length studies of California (most famously City of Quartz) are dystopian polemics that burn with urgent anger, even when he’s forensically going through those obscure local-government shenanigans which have quietly but indelibly formed and shaped the manmade landscape of Los Angeles and its overspills. Wilkerson’s approach to Los Angeles would seem to indicate more than a nodding familiarity with Davis, who is similarly fascinated by the villainy and venality of the union-phobic Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Otis (“the wrathful gargoyle with a walrus moustache and Custer goatee who glowers down on us from the battlements of Los Angeles’s Open Shop era”). In terms of cinema, yes, the essay form is generally a pretty polite wee beast, self-effacing and more inclined to whisper than bellow—most film-makers being (understandably) averse to anything that might smack of a hectoring, blunderbussing approach. There’s what we might call the school of Michael Moore, which is polemical, even propagandist rather than essayistic, the latter somehow suggesting an open-ended meander through certain subjects rather than a straight-arrow attempt to assert or prove certain pre-conceived opinions. The vogue has long been, to use Manny Farber’s terms, for essays to be termite art rather than white elephant art, and the latter can usually be safely dismissed as MOR documentary stuff, made with perhaps one eye on the Academy Awards and similar gewgaws. Olson and Wilkerson are, as you mention, on the margins of the commercial industry—not that it’s impossible to imagine an alternative present in which we might go to the pictures and, before the main feature, routinely expect a half-hour essay film exploring some pertinent political, psychological or historical terrain— the kind of thing that used to crop up on BBC2 until the 1980s or so. As it is, films like The Royal Road and Machine Gun Or Typewriter? rely on preaching-to-the-converted screenings at festivals and niche venues, with some kind of marginal half-life as downloads or, if they’re lucky, DVDs. Is this the way it’s always going to be, do you think? Should we just be grateful that the likes of Olson and Wilkerson manage to get a film made every few years, rather than bewailing the thousands—millions—of worthwhile voices that have no hope of access to any form of artistic dissemination?

MP: Well, one of the reasons both films—and, by extension, the authorial voices behind them—are so likeable to me is that they seem to be so sincere. I have long lamented what I refer to as a ‘self-marginalising’ cinema, which has become its own fashion on the festival circuit. We needn’t name names. A large part of this has to do with how filmmakers removed from mainstream avenues—so, all of the global south, but also those genuinely independent artists in America who are politically at odds with the studio system—are funded. A film festival like Rotterdam, with its Hubert Bals Fund, receives money from the Dutch government as part of a wider ‘international aid’ package, with which the festival auditions unfinished projects from Latin America, East Asia, and Africa in order to assist their completion, unveil them as world-premieres, and promote them as its own discovery. Quid pro quo! Trouble is, the funding initiative wants universally relatable products that are also locally authentic. So you get a lot of films with indigenous, non-professional casts all acting the same way—not acting at all, in fact—because that’s what the market thinks it demands, because in recent years those kinds of films have proven to have a certain popularity and therefore commercial viability. A lot of filmmakers are understandably drawn into this dialectic, and proceed on the assumption that such philanthrocapitalist initiatives are a harmless, sustainable alternative to the big studios. But it’s all Eurocentric, and we get a whole bunch of films whose experimentation isn’t really all that radical. The films are guaranteed a certain shelf life at festivals, but who are festivals really for? Filmmakers, without necessarily even realising it, get used to that being their market, but average filmgoers couldn’t care less. I quote, here, the World Socialist Web Site’s David Walsh:

When masses of people feel that there are things they need to see, they will find ways to see them… Part of the problem today is that wide layers of the population don’t feel that many films, including the art-festival films, are absolutely necessary for their existence. And, unfortunately, to a certain extent, they are correct. There’s an instinctive distrust of a certain kind of art film. This isn’t the artist’s or filmmaker’s individual fault, but there is this distance and distrust. The filmmaker also has a responsibility to show broad masses of people that he or she feels a certain responsibility toward them. It goes both ways.[1]

In contrast to those ‘festival films’ I’ve referred to, though, I honestly don’t think Wilkerson or Olson are self-marginalising. Neither strikes me as wanting to make work that’s necessarily difficult or even challenging—though it’s certainly experimental, which is quite a different thing. Would you agree?

NY: Wilkerson’s self-avowed model is Santiago Alvarez, who made hundreds of newsreel films in Cuba from the 1960s to the 1990s, and who was guaranteed a large—some would say ‘captive’—audience as these state-commissioned works were (I believe) shown in every cinema, as part of every programme. We can criticise post-revolutionary Cuba on many fronts, but it clearly believed in cinema as a medium that could combine artistry and propaganda for the ultimate benefit of audiences, both in terms of entertainment, education and self-improvement. Given the fundamental structural differences between Cuba and the United States post-1960, there’s no American equivalent of the sort of role Alvarez was able to enjoy for so long. The closest might be Jon Stewart, whose late-night TV programmes are explicitly made from a questioning, leftish-liberal perspective, and have made considerable impact—if only among what we in Britain would label the ‘chattering classes’. In terms of cinema, however: no dice. In his capacity as a much-employed ‘rewrite man’ John Sayles can be seen as a subverter-from-within, but it’s been a while since Sayles was a viable ‘name’ even on the arthouse/festival circuit. So, films like The Royal Road and Machine Gun Or Typewriter? are currently destined to be seen only by a relatively self-selecting coterie. But their presence at film festivals and in ‘niche’ venues can only have a positive effect on the culture as a whole: they will be seen by other filmmakers, who may be directly or indirectly influenced when they make their works, both in terms of having the guts to use cinema as a medium for self-expression and also in terms of incorporating questioning, even radical positions. I don’t want to sound Candide-like, but it’s vital to find some grounds for optimism, and not just bewail the fact that hardly anyone I know will ever get to see a film by Travis Wilkerson or Jenni Olson. The upcoming Sight & Sound article that I’m in the process of completing will hopefully point a few hundred folk towards Wilkerson’s work. It’s encouraging that the editors of that magazine, to which both of us have contributed, are happy to devote significant space to such a ‘marginal’ figure. But then again, the BFI (Sight & Sound’s publisher) has a public-service/educational remit not dissimilar to that of IFFR in Rotterdam. To answer your point about ‘experimental’ cinema, I’m much more familiar with Wilkerson’s oeuvre than I am with Olson’s (hopefully I will get chances to rectify that in the coming months and years) but yes, I would cite him as a genuine experimenter because I do get the sense that he’s taking leaps in the dark, creatively-speaking, uncertain of where and how he’s going to land. Sometimes the consequences are unfortunate (but never disastrous), but if I remember anything from my science classes at school it’s that most experiments ‘fail’, and you learn from the specific nature and contours of that failure. Long live failure!

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1 Walsh, David, ‘FICUNAM 2015: Part 5 – A revealing forum on “Politics and film criticism” at Mexican film festival’, Word Socialist Web Site, April 6 2015.