Old Joy (2006)


(director/writer/editor: Kelly Reichardt; screenwriter: Jonathan Raymond/based on the short story by Mr. Raymond; cinematographer: Peter Sillen; music: Yo La Tengo, performed with Smokey Hormel; cast: Will Oldham (Kurt), Daniel London (Mark),Tanya Smith (Tanya); Runtime: 76; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Neil Kopp/Lars Knudsen/Jay Van Hoy/Anish Savjani; Kino; 2006)
“The film is like a haiku that one can only interpret through their own experience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An observant minimalist indie film that is open to a wide spectrum of interpretation about the apparent passing of a friendship. It suggests how important friendships are in our lives as a way of connecting with ourselves and the world, even if they must come to an end because we are changing and moving on. The ‘old joy’ here can be viewed as a source of our current sorrow, as one of the characters so aptly puts it he heard it said in a dream from an unknown woman that: ‘Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.’

Brilliantly directed, written and edited by Ms. Kelly Reichardt (“Then a Year”/”River of Grass”) as a meditation meant to bring out a deep sense of yearning and understanding for the human condition; the tender and poignant film offers the belief that mankind is in need of a strong underlying spiritual connection with nature, himself and others. There are also political riffs on what it means to be living in George W. Bush’s America for those who haven’t signed on to his war program, as the car radio is tuned to the Air America talk show and the callers jostle with the host about LBJ as a champion for civil rights and the Republican’s ‘Southern Strategy’ as a result that gained them a foothold in the once Democrat South. It’s based on the short story by Jonathan Raymond, who is also the cowriter.

Portland, Oregon, thirtysomething resident Mark (Daniel London) gets his reluctant pregnant wife’s (Tanya Smith) consent to go with his straggly bearded old hippie friend Kurt (Will Oldham) on a weekend camping trip to the Bagby Hot Springs in the Cascade Mountains, as Kurt is someone Mark has lost contact with over the years. Kurt has no job, no money, and is about to be evicted from his residence for not paying the rent. He’s stuck living the same carefree life he was happy living 10 years earlier when he was in his twenties, but only now he’s lost his mojo, his old friends and happiness has dissipated for this kindly gay person who might soon be homeless. Just seeing Mark brings some color back to Kurt’s face and gives him some hope for the future, and an opportunity to talk again with someone who knows him and went through a period with him that still means a great deal to him. They take Mark’s Volvo station wagon, and Mark also brings along his dog Lucy. Kurt borrows some bread from Mark to score some grass, and they trek onto the woods smoking their weed in a bong and reminiscing about the old days when they lived together; they lament the closing of Sid’s record store they used to frequent that is now a health-drink bar named ‘Re-juicen-ation’ and talk about mutual friends they encountered since they last met. They both tell intimate things about themselves, with Mark talking about his folks and doing volunteer work for the community while Kurt tells about a wonderful transcending experience he had in the forests of Ashland. Unable to locate the hot springs, they camp out at night in the woods and are surprised that it’s used as a place to dump garbage. While stoned, a certain melancholy lingers over their campfire site as Mark contemplates being a father and Kurt talks about taking a physics course in college where he knew more than the teacher and advances his theory of the universe as a falling teardrop and then emotionally confesses that he wishes things could be like they were before for them. In the morning the two breakfast in a diner, where they get directions on how to find the springs. Once there they bathe in the springs and take in the beauty of nature, and return to the city and their very different lives. With Kurt taking the more lonely and socially less acceptable path of trying to find an inner peace without conforming to the system, while Mark has accepted his new bourgeois life and is looking forward to the challenges of being a father. One can only assume these two will grow further apart in the ensuing years and their adventures will be vastly different, with no guarantee either will find what they are looking for or be happy.

The plotless lyrical film about a strained reunion between two old friends who have gone in different directions has very little dialogue and reverberates with a sense of nostalgia for a lost time, a lost friendship and a lost opportunity for this country to move in the direction of the counter-culture without being co-opted by the Establishment. The two friends are both good people, but both feel lost in an America that is also changing but not necessarily for the better. In the end, the film is like a haiku that one can only interpret through their own experience. It’s an hermetic film that one can only enter if one has experienced similar things to the two elusive slacker-like characters that we know so little about yet probably know enough about them to say we do know them. But we can’t even be sure if Kurt is gay or if Mark and he were once lovers. The only thing we can be sure of is that the journey is the most important thing and not the end, and that there’s something special about this film for those who have been where these two have been (searching for a way to live that matters).