Old Joy

| November 3, 2006

On the basis of her excellent 1995 feature River of Grass and this, her first film since, I’m ready to declare Kelly Reichardt an essential voice in American filmmaking, and apparently I’m not alone. I am now reading scores of reviews that mention her ’95 feature, a wonderfully subversive road movie that freshly spun the Lovers on the Run genre, and I can’t help but wonder, where were they ten years ago? A Johnny-Come-Lately myself, I watched River of Grass in late 2004 and fell in love with its tactile atmosphere, drifting melancholy, and an irony that felt down to Earth and never cloying. I looked her up on IMDb and found a 2000 short Ode (which I’ve yet to see) and no future projects in sight, and I settled in to the notion that perhaps Reichardt–an NYU professor–was simply voice that not enough people heard, not enough to ask to hear again.
Imagine my surprise when a bevy of Sundance critics, all Little Miss Sunshined-out, lauded a certain sophomore feature as best in fest. Imagine my surprise when it rolled into other festivals to similarly ecstatic notices. Imagine my surprise when it was set to play at the Music Box this week for a Special Engagement, and thankfully found myself in a position to see it. I’m happy to report that Old Joy expands on the very real pleasures of River of Grass and one of the few films I’ve seen in recent memory that I could adequately label “Perfect.” I have no doubt that some may disagree, perhaps expecting something more structured, something with payoff, fireworks, and resolution. Old Joy is a film concerned with the passage of time, and so subtly imbues the viewer with a little slice of paradise that it’s very easily missed, as is the case with Mark.
Played by Daniel London, Mark is rung up, perhaps for the last time, by Kurt (Will Oldham, touchingly awkward) to spend some time away from civilization in a hot springs and reconnect after an indeterminate absence. Several beers, bowls, and wrong turns ending in a campfire, Kurt confesses that he is heartbroken that they are “not right” and perhaps never can be. Mark assures him that he is mistaken, that they are fine, but there is an air of ambiguous past and longing that hangs over them. Old Joy has been compared to certain gay cowboy movie, and this is not an unapt comparison, yet as directed by Kelly Reichardt, the love between these two men realized physically in the past or mentally in the now is beyond sex, beyond ranches and a good life together that was never meant to be.
I will not reveal what happens or does not in Old Joy, because it does the film a gross disservice; already I feel I have spoken too much. What Kelly Reichardt has done feels like a tribute to the moving image, even as the frame doesn’t move, aided immeasurably by cinematographer Peter Sillen’s embrace of natural lighting and a glorious score by Yo La Tengo. It is about quiet pains and intangible pleasures like leafy tree branches dancing on a windshield during a U-turn, of the sound disappearing just enough beneath the babble of a brook, of half-finished and concocted sentence fragments and stories that really never begin but are rooted in real loss and regret that others choose to ignore. The latter of which Kurt spirals into for a barely-listening Mark regarding a simply trek to a store for a notebook, that somehow ends on the statement that “sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy,” a declaration so organic and fleeting, that it just as easily lost on Mark as it is the viewer.
At 76 minutes, Old Joy is a fleeting experience that feels as much a gesture of reaching to the viewer as within the story, a reminder of things past and yet to come with every friendship. It is a trade of patience for emotional overload that will linger with you in sound and image as few films are capable of.

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