Friday, October 13, 2006


Mark (Daniel London) is a 40-ish husband, about to become a father, who meditates in order to hold at bay a vague dissatisfaction with his marital relationship and a pointedly less vague dread of the life to come. Kurt (Will Oldham) is the friend with whom Mark has lost touch, as aimless in his constant search of an elusive spiritual bliss as Mark is beholden to what he imagines to be the societal requirements necessary to achieve stability and happiness. Old Joy is the spare, poetic, blissfully haunted movie about these two men and the attempt to recapture a moment of the past, a fleeting shadow of what originally drew them together as friends, and their drift through a weekend together in the woods of the Oregon Cascades, where their two figures, constantly, fluidly floating past and trespassing upon one another within director Kelly Reichardt’s frames (shot by cinematographer Peter Sillen), will silently merge with the vast, quiet landscape, where the future hovers, solemnly, forebodingly, in the pines.

Reichardt merges the viewer with the Oregon forest too; she gets the seductive power of trees and logging trucks and roadside diners as glimpsed in passing through Kurt’s heavy-lidded, cannabis-impaired eyes. Old Joy is a road movie pitched to the rhythms of gently swaying pine trees, and one of its quietly insistent pleasures is the frequency with which it deflects the trajectory of this fundamentally propulsive subgenre, effectively translating the contemplative ambience and profound economy of a short story through subtle, yet essentially cinematic use of image and sound. (The script was written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond, adapted from Raymond’s short story.) By the time these two get lost on their way to a secluded hot springs (“That road sign up there is blank,” complains Mark to his unexacting navigator) and have to pitch camp at night by the side of the road amidst a pile of trash and abandoned furniture (“There’s not much difference between the city and the forest anymore,” opines Kurt, “Trees there, garbage here”), we’re lost too-- in the tangle of emotions not exactly repressed, but fighting to stay alive. We're cast adrift by Kurt’s muddled desperation to maintain a flicker of something that once held them together and the indifference of Mark, who can no longer imagine what that something might have been, so numbed is he by the slowly mounting panic of impending responsibility.

“I had a dream about you the other night,” Kurt tells Mark at the beginning of their journey. “It was in a hospital or something… But you were the best thing it in, by far.” Then later, when Kurt allows his defenses to drop long enough to express momentary, genuine despair over not knowing how to connect with his friend, the nakedness of Kurt’s need is not only shocking to Mark, but to us as well. Kurt regains his composure and papers over the moment in order to maintain the kind of placidity the surroundings seem to dictate. But even though the cat is now forever out of the bag, Reichardt artfully resists the temptation toward melodrama—everything expressed and left unexpressed in Old Joy has equal clarity in the subtlest of motions, and in the moments of stillness too. The series of images of these two men silently absorbing the experience of the hot springs, and Mark’s resistance to his friend’s innocent overture of physical closeness, eloquently carry within them the resonant, dissonant chords of male friendship echoing and then dissipating.

Kurt will later recount a dream in which he is subsumed by guilt over nearly running down a pedestrian with his bicycle, and then forced to encounter the man over and over again and suffer further humiliation. In the dream he is comforted by a middle-aged Indian woman who tells him “Sorrow is just worn-out joy,” a suggestion he recounts to Mark, who may or may not be hearing what his old friend is telling him. The men part company upon returning to Portland (they pass by a neon sign located in an industrial district on the outskirts of downtown that flickers a melancholy “Made in Oregon”), and the tentative expressions they offer to each other acknowledge that the friendship is now passing into fading acquaintance, that this moment together will likely be their last. Mark vacantly drives away, hunched behind the wheel, ostensibly protected against the outside world in his motorized shell, even as the voices of talk radio once again validate his fears about “the uncertainty of the future and the pressure of the present.” Kurt, himself perhaps only a week or two away from homelessness, drops his camping gear in a doorway and proceeds to zig and zag along the busy streets, perpetuating his meandering search for meaning, for purpose, for connection in his life with anything and everything and nothing all at the same time. Old Joy is a lovely, allusive portrait of the blissful roots of despair, a welcome reminder in this season of award-sniffing bombast how brisk and refreshing the scent of a subtle, original vision can be.

(Old Joy opens today in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Laemmle Fallbrook 7 in West Hills. For playdates around the country, click here. You can see the Old Joy trailer here.)


Brian Darr said...

It arrives next weekend in San Francisco and I'll be seeing it for sure. I'm really feeling the need to see a great new American indie. MUTUAL APPRECIATION didn't quite hit that mark for me so I'm still lookin'

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Welcome back, fellow traveler!

I really hope you like Old Joy-- I was transfixed, and even though I feel like it's pretty much exactly the movie it should be, I still wanted it to go on for at least another half hour. (It's only 76 minutes long.)

What did you think of Funny Ha-Ha? Based on my surprisingly strong positive reaction to that movie, I've been highly anticipating Mutual Appreciation, though the decreased presence of Kate Dollenmeyer could prove to be a key factor for me.

By the way, your first dispatch from Lone Pine was exceptional, and I can't wait to read the follow-up. I've been trying to marshal some thoughts together, but I'm so up against the wall with life and horror movies and Aldrich that I may just opt to post some pictures instead, like those interminable slide shows of vacations that my dad used to force people to endure... only with hilarious captions, of course, instead of hilarious, meandering narration...

Anonymous said...

I have a screener of "Old Boy" in my DVD player at this very moment -- plan to watch it tonight and will review it for the Chicago Sun-Times and I've been interested (but avoiding reading about it) ever since Manohla wrote something on it last spring.

I haven't seen "Funny Ha Ha" -- but I ordered "Mutual Appreciation" from the filmmaker's web site months ago and haven't had a chance to watch it yet, either.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jim, I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on the movie. And your instinct to not read too much on it is a good one, I think-- this movie is best experienced as clear of other people's thoughts about it as is possible. I will say this-- a certain literary name kept rearing its head in my mind while I was watching it, and I'll be curious to see if the movie puts you in a similar frame of mind.

I did the same thing with Mutual Appreciation-- bought it and just haven't found my way there yet. I was fully prepared to be profoundly irritated by Funny Ha-Ha and got pleasantly wrapped up in it, despite my curmudgeonly preconceptions. I hope Mutual Appreciation will blindside in a similar, yet equally unexpected way.

Anonymous said...

"And your instinct to not read too much on it is a good one, I think-- this movie is best experienced as clear of other people's thoughts about it as is possible."

That said, Dennis... when the writing is as good as in this post, I'm not so sure. Wonderful, wonderful words.

Brian Darr said...

Dennis, I never saw FUNNY HA HA, but MUTUAL APPRECIATION was definitely good enough to keep me interesting in taking a look at it.

I had a blast at the festival and meeting you was a major highlight. I'm go glad I helped inspire you to come up for the occassion. I'd love to see photos with hilarious captions or anything else you might decide to bring time willing. Especially since there wasn't much overlap in our festival activities.

I think Greencine will be publishing my second installment tomorrow. I discuss SEVEN MEN FROM NOW in some length.

We'll see about Robert Aldrich; I still want to be able to contribute something but its looking likely that I won't be able to pull it off in time.

Thom McGregor said...

I'm coming out of hiding to congratulate you on your wonderful review. Even though I saw the movie with you, your words helped me process the film more thoroughly than I seemed capable of. As lyrical and poetic as the movie itself. Bye! (Back to hiding)

Anonymous said...

This looks really promising, and your writing has rarely been better or more evocative. I notice it's coming to the Bijou on Friday--think I'll head over there for a matinee.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Peet, I didn't want to let a whole lot more time pass (enough has already) without saying thanks for your comment.

The old shackles of self-doubt have not exactly been sloughed off (perhaps they never will be), and when I posted this I was still very close, time-wise and perception-wise, to the movie and I wasn't sure if I was communicating anything about it or whether I was drifting along in some foresty fog not unlike the one the characters move through during the film.

And those of us who love to read film criticism often have a hard time resisting the temptation to take in as much about a film we're interested in as possible, especially when it might be a good, long while before we get a chance to actually see the film under discussion. (I went through this little push-and-pull when deciding whether or not to read your fine piece on Black Book. Of course, I caved, and I don't regret it! And now I can't wait to see the movie!)

So it means a lot to me that you would have such supportive things to say about this piece in particular. Thanks for checking in.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thom: Come out of hiding more often, won't you? It was fun seeing Old Joy with you.

Blaaagh: Thanks, my friend. And when you get to the Bijou, see if you can tell if they've posted a copy of the review-- they got hold of a copy and are undoubtedly printing it in one-sheet-sized copies to help trumpet the movie's arrival in Eugene as we speak!

Brian Darr said...

Dennis, I saw this Friday night and decided to come back and read your post. Your prose is a wonderful way to relive the film. I liked it a lot while watching, but I think I like it even better now, if that makes sense.