Review by Michael Joshua Rowin
Produced by Lars Knudsen, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Jay Van Hoy; directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond; cinematography by Peter Sillen; edited by Kelly Reichardt; original music by Yo La Tengo; starring Daniel London and Will Oldham. Color, 76 mins. A Kino International release.
The setup feels familiar enough: a married man receives a call from an old friend. The friend, a carefree, spontaneous soul, convinces the stuffy, responsible protagonist to “get away from it all” and rediscover the freedom of their youth while also maturely reflecting on life. In the case of Old Joy, Mark (Daniel London) practices meditation in a quiet Portland suburb when Kurt (Will Oldham) leaves a message recommending a daylong excursion into the Oregon forests for a hike and then a dip in the famous local hot tubs. Kurt clearly doesn’t have things together—the out of nowhere invitation is the action of an impulsive type who expects others to likewise drop everything when the mood strikes. Mark asks Tanya (Tanya Smith), his pregnant wife, if she’s okay with his minivacation—she’s obviously not, but tells him he should do whatever he wants. Mark, a handsome, from all appearances sensitive man in his early thirties, drives to meet dear old Kurt, a shaggy, bearded modern nomad. And so Old Joy begins, with all the makings of a taking assessment, getting-back-to-nature-and-the-things-that-really-matter middlebrow-fest.
A single element, however, suggests something else entirely. The opening credit sequence not only has the viewer learn that the director of Old Joy is Kelly Reichardt, the filmmaker behind small, scrappy gems like River of Grass and Ode, but also has Mark in his car listening to the incessant ramble of talk radio in the form of Air America’s liberal hand wringing. A host, guest, and caller discuss and argue Lyndon Johnson’s legacy, the Democratic Party’s shift from Southern strength to its current incarnation, and the Republican Party’s willing exploitation of this scenario. Why the intrusion of global concerns into something so seemingly local? One could easily mistake these radio segments as Reichardt’s capitulation to ‘depth,’ to making a mountain of meaning (the red state/blue state divide, perhaps) out of something minor or even slight (two men taking a road trip). Indeed, Harlan Jacobson saw as much in Sideways, a superficially similar film lacking such blatant ‘messages.’ But while it might serve as a clue as to the metaphorical heft of Mark and Kurt’s complicated friendship, the radio segments more importantly tether the film to a concrete reality in which liberals like Mark often surround themselves with self-perpetuating discourse in order to hide from closer, more immediate problems.
That’s the unassuming beauty of Old Joy. If the film is, on one level, about the rift between the political and the personal among mid-life crisis-approaching members of Generation X, it is also, on an equally successful level, about two wholly dimensional individuals named Mark and Kurt. Reichardt, working from a screenplay cowritten with Jonathan Raymond and adapted from his same-titled short story, never sacrifices emotional honesty for topical relevance, or believable, lived-in characters for ideological talking points. Old Joy is one of those rare films where ideas on the ‘current state’ of, say, a generation or a gender don’t come at the expense of story or character. Everything comes together—acting, directing, place, and time—to create a complete picture, not just a diagram or a demonstration of a principle. At a time when the most lucrative, talked-about American independent films peddle clichés and platitudes to pander and avoid challenging their audiences (e.g., Little Miss Sunshine), Old Joy actually speaks in a dying tongue: the human.
For instance, Kurt’s role could have easily been an embarrassing stereotype, one of those annoying Eccentrics like the female half of the Harold and Maude equation whose creators take for granted will be relatable due to sheer cuteness, thus becoming burdened with annoying tics and false turns of phrase. But when Kurt finally shows up (customarily late, it seems, while Mark waits for him on the porch of Kurt’s house) he defies expectations. It helps that Will Oldham plays him brilliantly, tempering the obligatory big kid impulses with genuine awkwardness, energy, and a barely contained—and later on, uncontainable—volcano of dissatisfaction. No doubt, he’s a ragamuffin (beard, worn threads, upon entrance dragging a wagon of secondhand materials) in the grand tradition of cinematic ‘free spirits,’ but he’s also a fully formed person whose mannerisms and reactions evoke galaxies of thoughts and experiences beyond the extremely limited scope of the film (a mere seventy-six minutes) in which he appears.
On the car ride to the forest (Kurt turns off the Air America broadcast) the two get along at moments, mostly when just catching up with each other’s lives (Mark’s father’s recent illness) or mutually eulogizing the faded golden age and the ascendance of tepid mediocrity (the closing of the local independent record store, now a smoothie café)—there’s even one moment of unself-conscious fun during a convenience store run that turns into an interlude of mild tomfoolery. But despite these reprieves of camaraderie, accompanied by serene car window shots of the gorgeous overcast Oregon filament (long stretches scored to original Yo La Tengo music), a chill hangs in the air, perhaps brought on by Mark’s resentment and jealousy toward Kurt’s life of irresponsibility. Discussing a rediscovered homemade bong from the good old days, Kurt states, ulterior meaning intended or not, “Man, Mark, you really hold onto shit.” Later, responding to Kurt’s tale of a back-to-the-primitive festival attended at Big Sur (“You should have been there”), Mark reacts peevishly, only muttering a terse, “No shit.” The classic odd couple dynamic has turned sour and passive-aggressive, without comedy (à la Sideways) to sublimate the bad vibes. By the time Kurt, unsure of the location of the hot springs, inadvertently steers the two far off their original plan, a palpable tension is definitely noticeable.
The tension then comes to a head at the campsite that Mark and Kurt make on the side of the road where usable refuse, including a discarded couch, lies waiting for them. There, Old Joy’s first crisis arrives so expectedly that its sheer force and laid-bare emotion constitutes the crucial elements of surprise, enough to make the scene a near classic. Trapped in the middle of a male bonding ritual—involving, no less, shooting a BB gun at some empty cans—with no escape from self-consciousness, Mark and Kurt awkwardly drink beer by a fire at night as Kurt imparts his theory about the meaning of the universe, which he sees as shaped as a tear drop forever falling. Old Joy’s narrative foundation, already under steady subversion, would suggest Kurt’s extended monolog and wistful cosmology as the spiritual core of the film. Instead, it’s the boiling point. Mark responds to Kurt by offering a condescending chuckle and a few humoring questions. After a moment of silence Kurt lets forth a pained groan and punctures any remaining veneer of affability: “I miss you, Mark. I miss you really, really bad. I want us to be real friends again. There’s something between us and I don’t like it, I want it to go away.” Mark refutes this judgment, saying that the two of them are fine. “Are you serious, do you really think that?,” Kurt replies. Mark holds his ground and Kurt, perhaps unwilling to elaborate, retreats. Collecting himself and forcing a perturbing smile, Kurt smothers his previous candor: “I’m just being crazy, I know. Don’t pay any attention to me. We’re fine.” He takes up the BB gun again as Mark remains seated, stunned. Is this where the pain from Kurt’s tear-shaped universe originates, in the death of a friendship? Or is it in the retracted honesty that for a brief moment promised a real clearing of the air? Whatever the case, it’s apparent that even Kurt, despite all his freedom, can’t bring about a full accounting of this friendship. The veneer holds strong.
The next morning things are, as one can well imagine, awkward. Mark and Kurt pack up the campsite, never saying a word. Later, at a roadside café where they ask for directions, Mark takes a call from Tanya on his cellphone outside, explaining his changed plans. “Remember who we’re dealing with,” he apologizes to her, but then when learning of Kurt’s surety of the hot springs site claims, “I never doubted you, man.” A crucial exchange occurs the while hiking in the woods toward the hot springs. Mark tells Kurt of a project he worked on with a group of high schoolers transforming a dump into a community garden. Kurt, genuinely and affectionately, tells Mark he’s proud of him, that he’s “really given something back to the community.” “It’s nothing you couldn’t do if you felt like it to,” Mark replies, instead of a gracious “thank you.” “Not that you don’t give to the community,” Mark backtracks, already eating his words. “It’s just a different community.” It’s perfectly obvious now that Mark sees Kurt as his inferior, a manchild looking out for his own kicks instead of bettering the world as he does.
Kurt offers no conventional defense to this charge, but instead expresses himself in his own language. Finally getting to the hot springs, Mark and Kurt strip themselves bare (protective shields down) and take a dip in separate baths. The entire film, shot by cinematographer Peter Sillen, has up to this point capitalized on a steady, patient rhythm and contemplative shots composed out of melancholic natural surroundings, but the hot springs scene slows things to a crawl in order to set up another Kurt monolog. Instead of the first monolog’s woeful metaphor and frustrated conclusion, the second’s intention is to soothe, or else offset the turmoil underlying Mark and Kurt’s friendship with a vision of deeper harmony. The moral Kurt reaches after a long story involving a series of strange coincidences he experienced: “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.” The aphorism applies perfectly to their friendship, but any healing effect the acknowledgment might have quickly dissipates when Kurt attempts to give Mark a shoulder massage, another awkward move that puts him back in his shell.
To return to the film’s global (but not larger or more pressing) concerns, Mark and Kurt on one hand represent the Thirtysomething American liberal mind/body split, sensitive on the micro level, intelligent on the macro, but unable to bring the two together to make a presentable case of his enlightened cause to the rest of the country. Not much has changed from thirty years before, when Yvonne Rainer expressed this rift so well in her film Kristina Talking Pictures: “Did you march on Washington but let a friend bully you to tears?” As Mark and Kurt part ways at film’s end and return to their respective lives—the former to the inoculating self-righteousness of his Air America while the latter skulks around the streets of Portland, helping a homeless man he encounters but unable to help himself—the rift remains unresolved, unsettled. Yet Reichardt’s approach makes the rift a human and not a purely ideological one, even if that might make the minimal, achingly subtle naturalism of Old Joy too ambivalent, and not a strong enough message or remedy, for many viewers—her film refuses to propose pat (re)solutions to private and specialized issues. Like us, Mark and Kurt are just figures in a landscape, trying not to wear away their friendship in a falling universe.