Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Old Joy: fleeting glimpses as feature film

It's one of those moments when the flickering image nearly becomes something else, a portal, when the audience’s perspective overlaps that of the characters’: though the car window a wild landscape passes, the characters sealed within, longing for what’s outside. Once the car’s parked, the doors opened, the invisible barrier is penetrated and the spell broken, the fluidity of steady movement replaced by awkward stumbling onto rough earth. There are these pesky moments that only touch you when passing you by.

I’m referring to moments in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, adapted by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from Raymond’s short story. The premise is so simple –two estranged friends reconnect for a night of camping and day-hike to a hot spring– that such reveries just bubble up from the fortitude of the atmosphere, accentuated by Yo La Tengo’s hushed score. It’s a different sort of character identification than we’re accustomed to, one entirely about implications drawn from few rather than innumerable cues.

The friends are Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, whose music shares a particular kinship with Reichardt’s vision). Both are in their late 30s, with the period of their lives in which they could easily relate to one and other clearly far behind them. Mark has more or less settled into grown-up life in Portland, Oregon. We first see him attempting half-convincing yogic meditation when he gets the surprise invitation from Kurt, resulting in disapproving glares from his very pregnant wife.

Mark’s reserved, perhaps uncomfortable. Kurt effortlessly assumes control of the conversation once on the road. He’s a lonely, non-committal, restless spirit with vaguely New Age tendencies, still sniffing around for some elusive satori that convention advises is best found in our 20s. Gradually Kurt’s nervousness hints at a deeper, long-simmering panic. He confesses that this trip was intended to rekindle their friendship, though once the words leave his mouth it’s obvious such hopes are in vain.

I’m told the film’s title refers to a Chinese proverb. It slips into the film’s spare dialogue as Kurt recounts a strange, affecting dream. That
Old Joy seems founded in proverb, in a piece of wisdom honed down to something both essential and multifaceted, seems appropriate, directing us toward a reading of the film that might do justice to its measure of depth in tone and feeling.

There were more than 10 years between Reichardt’s debut feature River of Grass and this, her follow-up. (In between was a short entitled ‘Ode,’ with music by Oldham.) I’ve no idea what Reichardt did in the meantime, but there’s something curiously satisfying in the fact that she’s waited so long to –in the literal sense– say so little. Old Joy’s only 76 minutes long, distinguished by a dearth of narrative events, and feels utterly out of time, an accumulation of details and feelings more than a story. Yet I don’t think there’s a single moment that doesn’t hold the glow from the filaments at the film’s core.

Reichardt lets things play out in a way that’s pointed, poetic and maybe not as dire as it first seems. After parting ways with Mark, Kurt appears unnervingly aimless on a nocturnal urban street, passing some change onto a homeless guy as an act of fleeting communion, or way to stave off fear of eventually winding up in the same place. The camera swings off into the street that gives way to the darkness on the edge of town and the title suddenly appears, abandoning Kurt but leaving him very much alive in the closing moments of this quiet film that only grows in meaning and beauty after its over.

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