Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy” (2006)

The Portland I knew growing up is gone now.  Its soggy, homegrown eccentricity has long since been replaced by a cosmopolitan renaissance.  A ruggedly provincial, semi-blue-collar character has given way to a creative class comprised of outsiders and economic refugees fleeing the runaway cost of living in larger cities like LA or San Francisco.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise important questions about what it means to undergo such a rapid character shift at a citywide level— and what we stand to lose. Films like Gus Van Santa’s MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991) or books like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fugitives and Refugees” capture the Portland of old: a grunge paradise of misfits, dropouts, and yuppies with the hook-up to the Nike employee store.  Now that character is conveyed to the outside world through reductive parodies like PORTLANDIA or fundamentally-misperceived portraits like SHRILL.  One could imagine there’s an abundance of DIY homegrown films by Portland filmmakers that accurately capture its character as it stands today, but therein lies the inherent irony: to authentically capture Portland’s genuine character is to embrace underground obscurity.  There is, at the very least, one film that manages to both boast a national profile in addition to genuinely capturing Portland’s slacker spirit: Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 feature, OLD JOY.  The picture that began Reichardt’s long cinematic love affair with Portland and the greater Oregon region, OLD JOY also marks the beginning of her ascent as a figurehead of contemporary independent filmmaking.  

One of the quieter films in recent memory, Reichardt’s third (some would say second) feature eschews the theatrics of active plotting in favor of passive observation.  To describe it on it a surface level, it is essentially a story about two friends who take to the woods in search of a hot bath, where the emotional conflict is buried so deep into subtle nuances of characterization that a friendly massage becomes the de facto narrative climax.  Such descriptions, however, do a massive disservice to the aching beauty and contemplative serenity of OLD JOY, which Reichardt co-adapted from a short story by Portland-based author Jonathan Raymond.  Having first been exposed to Raymond’s work by reading his novel “The Half Life” on a road trip, Reichardt discovered that they shared many of the same narrative and thematic interests (1).  She subsequently approached him to see if he had any short stories she could adapt to screen— specifically any that took place mostly outdoors (1). This ask would seem to follow the template she established with 1999’s ODE, which also was adapted from pre-existing literature and took place in outdoor locations that could be secured on the cheap.  Reichardt and Raymond’s subsequent writing collaboration, however, would prove more fruitful than either could have expected, establishing a symbiotic creative partnership that would run through no less than three consecutive projects.  

Reichardt had embarked on projects since ODE (the little-seen, enigmatic short THEN A YEAR (2001)), but the production of OLD JOY represents a substantial leap forward in the development of her artistic voice.  The film boasts some serious producing cred, with Portland-based indie mogul Neil Kopp working in partnership with Anish Savjani, Jay Van Hoy, and executive producer Todd Haynes (who, along with Gus Van Sant, stands as both one of the figureheads of queer cinema and a founding father of Portland’s filmmaking scene).  That said, OLD JOY avoids the type of polished “produced” vibe that such talents might engender, opting for a lived-in earthiness that speaks to the city’s rugged DIY spirit.  Reichardt manages to flesh out the barest sketch of a story — carefree nomad / functioning hobo Kurt (Will Oldham) invites old friend Mark (Daniel London) to accompany him on a trek to the Bagby Hot Springs in Estacada to reconnect with nature and rekindle their stagnating friendship — transforming what is essentially a minimalist character study into a timeless, melancholy story about the inexorable passage of time and its effects on friendship.  The meaning of the film’s title is revealed through the course of the climactic hot springs sequence, as Kurt details a dream in which he received a profound emotional truth from a wise stranger: “sorrow is nothing but worn out joy”. An oblique truth, but a truth nonetheless— this “old joy” might be alternatively described as nostalgia, whereby happy memories become infused with the melancholy knowledge that they can’t be easily recaptured. Mark and Kurt are very much caught up in this state of mind, their long-time friendship on the verge of a major paradigm shift as Mark’s impending fatherhood and Kurt’s refusal to be tied down lead to a fundamental incompatibility.  This sense of the inevitable — the way that time transforms the nature of our various relationships, and the sobering realization that some friends don’t make the leap into new phases of life with you — permeates OLD JOY, creating a mournful aura that begs to be quietly observed in a ritualistic manner.  Rather than hold a wake for their friendship, Mark and Kurt opt to suspend it within an almost banal moment of time; a simple, non-assuming “see you soon” implying that the very opposite stands as to the likeliest of scenarios.

The production of ODE proved that Reichardt could shoot a film with only herself, a sound person, and actors.  OLD JOY builds on this minimalist conceit by adding only one additional crew member, despite enjoying access to far more resources than her previous projects.  In fact, Reichardt designs the production so that the entire company could feasibly fit within Mark’s station wagon— London and Oldham in the front, Reichardt, sound man Gabriel Fleming and cinematographer Peter Sillen in the back, and her dog Lucy in the trunk (1).  It may not be the most comfortable way to make a film, but this extremely intimate approach boasts immediate benefits in her actors’ quietly soulful performances as well as the film’s earthy, naturalistic aesthetic. While this scenario is now fairly common amongst digital films made by the microbudget faction of the indie world, one has to consider the additional challenge of doing so with bulky film equipment.  Reichardt is unique among the celluloid-friendly filmmakers of her generation in that she prefers the organic grit of Super 16mm to the industry-standard 35mm gauge. OLD JOY builds upon this filmic foundation established by RIVER OF GRASS, adopting a 1.66:1 aspect ratio with which to frame observational set-ups captured via a locked-off tripod, subtle handheld setups, and even from the backseat of a moving car.  This fleet-rootedness further empowers Sillen and Reichardt’s use of available light to render Oregon’s signature color palette: the clay brown of its forested floor, the blue-green canopy of Douglas fir trees, and the soggy grey skies that hang low overhead.  Reichardt once again serves as her own editor, populating her ruminative footage with evocative cutaways to surrounding wildlife, much like she had done in her previous work. And yet, the lack of a voiceover conceit moves OLD JOY firmly away from the BADLANDS influence felt throughout RIVER OF GRASS or ODE, and towards the silent, unblinking gaze that would come to define her own aesthetic. Yo La Tengo’s spare, contemplative score cements this transition; having previously had one of their own songs licensed for ODE, the celebrated indie rock band now gets to actively shape OLD JOY’s musical landscape with new compositions comprised of noodling guitar plucks and wistful piano chords. The result is a folksy, ruminative music bed that matches both the interior theatrics of the story as well as Reichardt’s emergence as a mature filmmaker who exhibits her confidence through restraint and quiet nuance.

OLD JOY’s role in the definition of Reichardt’s artistic character is more of a technical or aesthetic one than it is thematic.  The feminine character perspective that shapes the majority of her work is mostly absent here, save for the brief moment we get to spend alone with Mark’s frustrated and very pregnant wife at the beginning of the film.  Said moment, however, stands as a sly commentary on Reichardt’s part about the exclusionary nature of the film’s narrative archetype. Stories about venturing into the wilderness to find oneself tend to almost exclusively favor the masculine perspective— the womenfolk must stay home and tend to the babies, after all.  The opening scene goes to great lengths to establish that Mark’s wife feels very strongly that he doesn’t need her permission to go out and do things, as if the very act of his asking implies she is a “naggy” wife who wishes to keep him entrapped within the pillow-lined cage of domesticity. Nevertheless, Reichardt leaves her character alone in the kitchen as Mark hits the road, forced by her pregnancy to conform to gender roles and suppress her own personal ambitions.  To their credit, Mark and Kurt do fit somewhat within Reichardt’s artistic interest in characters that live on the fringes of mainstream society— both lack the exterior strength or virility one would expect in a masculine protagonist taking to the woods. Indeed, they would very easily be supporting characters in someone else’s story. This in and of itself makes OLD JOY worth making: the story becomes an oblique entrypoint into a cinematic study of male friendships that we don’t often see on screen, colored by all the complexity that aging and growing emotional distance entails.

OLD JOY also makes an interesting — albeit characteristically-subtle — comment on the very idea of being “one with nature”.  There is a pervasive sense in our culture that the natural world holds the secret to our truest selves… we just have to venture out and find it.  Some opt for the path of least resistance and let “nature” come to them: they meditate in overly-curated miniature gardens like Mark is seen doing at the beginning, or, like Mark’s wife does, they make a vitamin-rich smoothie out of bitter greens as if it were the elixir to perpetual health and vitality.  OLD JOY suggests that these commercialized forms of “holistic” living are ultimately hollow; true self-discovery isn’t about manufacturing a scenario in which it can happen.  Rather, it is about simply listening to the world around you, letting its beauty and wisdom wash over you— like a long soak in a hot spring.

Despite a very limited theatrical engagement, OLD JOY managed to make quite an impression with critics, who appreciated its serene melancholy enough to reserve a spot for the film in their year-end Top 10 lists.  Doubtless, there were many negative reviews from many who simply neither understood or refused to open themselves up to its wistful wisdom, but time has effectively rendered their opinions moot— OLD JOY is almost universally regarded today as a beacon of homegrown filmmaking.  More importantly, it would re-establish Reichardt’s creative voice after twelve years of relative silence, ushering in a prolific new period that would launch her towards the forefront of American independent cinema.

OLD JOY is currently available as a high-definition stream via The Criterion Channel, as well as a standard-definition DVD via Kino International.

Credits:

Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond

Produced by: Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Jay Van Hoy

Director of Photography: Peter Sillen

Edited by: Kelly Reichardt

Music by: Yo La Tengo

References:

  • Audio Commentary: OLD JOY DVD, Kino International