Friday, September 15, 2006
A new film, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy(Kino International), is already a time capsule, from the yesteryear of late 2004 and early 2005, when the price of a gallon of regular gas was $2.18 and road trips like the one portrayed were a little easier on the wallet. Still, the movie would argue (not that it is an argumentative piece in the least) that the trips are worth the effort, a balm for troubled relationships and the vague uneasiness about life in general that no one is immune from. The journey here, encapsulated in 76 minutes, is from Portland, OR, to the Cascade Mountains; the not-altogether-happy campers, though no finger of blame is placed, are the holistic-minded Kurt, an itinerant deep into his 30s (and played by musician/actor Will Oldham, pictured below), and the married Mark (character actor Daniel London, a familiar face since the late 90s), who is expecting his first child. Mark's dog also pads around.
No Sideways-type hijinx here with merlot and babes; the film, co-written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond and based on Raymond's short story (which is illustrated with Justine Kurland's naturist, utopian-recalling photographs), is stripped to its literal bare essence, as the two men, unwinding at a hot spring in the forest*, bridge their divide, then part, perhaps forever. There are half-joking observations, mostly from the more talkative Kurt ("There's no difference anymore between the city and the forest. The city is full of trees, and the forest is full of garbage"), and a lot of long takes, where the cinematographer, Peter Sillen, gracefully shoots the open road and enclosing woodlands, and a score by Yo La Tengo idles safely below the speed limit.
Old Joy, which opens Sept. 20 at Film Forum in Manhattan, is a kind of litmus test for film reviewers. The "right" kind appreciate its melancholic, meditative qualities, and find a place for it with other road movies like Two-Lane Blacktop of Kings of the Road; the rest nod off intermittently, and exit the theater groggy and irritated, feeling boobish and had ("another festival favorite that died off the circuit," I can hear them muttering). I'm somewhere in the middle, admiring the craft and the hushed mood but, as happens so often with American indies, feeling slightly famished afterwards. The driving scenes are punctuated by on-air chatter from the liberal radio station Air America: Bush, the false recovery, etc. The movie suggests that we turn down the volume long enough to recourse and appreciate the other things that matter before reentering the fray and challenging the political status quo, but this dimension is frustratingly unexplored. This is cinema by wavelength--if you get on it, fine, if you don't, like, it's no big deal. Old Joy is ambitious and unambitious all at once.
[And, with midterm elections coming up, after a pileup of administration inadequacies that need to be exploited, I would have thought the last time for contemplation would have been back when gas cost $2.18 a gallon. Democrats have been on a road trip, befogged by their acquiescence and disillusionment, long enough.]
*I had to chuckle at the final end credit, which states that the real-life retreat the movie refers to does not allow alcohol or nudity. Anyone inspired to look for that kind of utopia by this film better look elsewhere for it in the Pacific Northwest.