' Cinema Romantico: Old Joy

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Old Joy

“We’ll just have to find another rhythm.” This is what Mark (Daniel London) says to his longtime friend Kurt (Will Oldham) about life as he knows it and the baby he and his wife, Tanya (Tanya Smith), are expecting. But it also aptly describes the small but generally fabulous oeuvre of the film’s auteur, Kelly Reichardt, a woman who has found a different cinematic rhythm, one that can sometimes feel akin to the journey undertaken by Rachel Nuwer of the BBC in which she attempted to locate the last place on Earth without human noise. Reichardt is not afraid of silence and she often seems to be explicitly attempting to convey what silence can mean in a world infiltrated almost exclusively by noise. Her films often have political and social bents as well, yet “Old Joy”, from 2006, the barely 75 minute feature that seemingly started her recent run of creativity (“Wendy and Lucy”, “Meek’s Cutoff”, “Night Moves”), appears most intent on exploring what happens in our heads when everything goes quiet.


The film’s opening shots involve Mark meditating in the backyard of his Oregon home. This meditation quite unreservedly comes across futile, particularly when he fields a phone call from Kurt, whom he hasn’t seen in years, wondering if he might like to meet up for a hike to some supposedly mystical hot spring in the wilderness. He “runs it by” Tanya and she wonders about the point of running it by her since they both already know he’s going. It’s a conversation about how they don’t have conversations, and they both know it and neither seems to have any idea what to do about it, and this signals a communication breakdown, one which Reichardt seems quite content to hammer home in her laconic way.

As Mark drives to pick up Kurt, he listens to talk radio, pundits hollering about politics, but this feels less like rhetoric than aesthetic, the drone of background noise that follows everyone everywhere. Upon picking up his pal, in one of those anti-narrative decisions that many might resist, “Old Joy” follows them as they wind their way out of town, the camera insisting on the transition from the non-descript factories and hazy gray turnpikes and rote freeway signs to the evergreen forestry. This insistence lets us feel the fumes of the cityscape fall away. Still, the characters struggle to breathe in the replenishing oxygen. They get lost, not in that horror movie way but in that realistically meandering way. We see how time has subtly frayed their friendship – Kurt clinging to scraps of the past, Mark warily crawling toward the future. They came to clear their minds, yet the clouds won’t part.

The film’s finest shot is deceptively simple, placing the camera in back of the car and watching Mark field a phone call from his wife and exit the vehicle and walk up the road as we watch along with the Kurt through the windshield. This is it what it takes to be noise-free in present day America, for the other person to take his phone off into the woods. Yet when presented a moment of genuine silence, Kurt tokes up, as if the prevalence of our own thoughts is precisely what terrifies him about alone time.

Reichardt gradually builds “Old Joy” to a moment when both characters are left alone with their own thoughts, and what she does with it is brilliantly tricky. She plays on the audience’s own ideas of what happens absent human noise in a subverted Hitchcockian kind of way so that when a certain moment of behavior occurs between them, we, like Mark, think Kurt must be up to something nefariously bizarre. We can’t calm down. We can’t relax. We can’t shut off. And “Old Joy” makes clear how numbingly difficult it can be to get there. And when we do, we return to the sounds of talk radio and the noises of the street. Manohla Dargis of the esteemed New York Times saw hope in the final shots. I thought of when I return to the streets of the city from peaceful respites of seclusion and immediately, unintentionally and frustratingly drop right back into patterns of self-narration of exasperation, the urban sprawl re-consuming me. Joy, it's so hard to come by, so hard to sustain.

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