Old Joy

Kino International
Kelly Reichardt/United States 2006

The film Old Joy is very mundane, and director Kelly Reichardt keeps it refreshingly simple. It’s so simple that some will ask, “well, what’s the point?”

The point of the film emerges near the end during a conversation between Kurt (Will Oldham), a supposed free spirit trapped in his stoned corridors of the modern world, and Mark (Daniel London), a married man facing fatherhood. Kurt recalls a dream in which an Indian woman who sold him a notebook earlier that week telling him “everything is going to be fine; sorrow is just old joy.” The phrase perfectly encapsulates the film. This is apparent from the start, even down to the grain of the film.

The aesthetic is dismal and grey – that of a stale taste in a mouth, or a day that is just like any other day and leaves one wondering why it wouldn’t it just rain. The sound in the film formally speaks to the content – a noisy suburban space where Mark can’t even sit in his own backyard and meditate, to the woods where civilization is less and the whispers of the trees and the birds seem like Strauss. The aesthetic of the film speaks where most films dare not – in silence. Where the film lacks in dialogue, it makes up in superb non-verbal cues that inform the viewer of the story and the particular situation.

Here is where the film is really worthwhile: From the beginning it seems like the trip is going to be some idyllic getaway to nature. For Mark, the phone call from old-time friend Kurt seems like the possibility to get away. However, what is cleverly revealed by Reichardt, is that the trip is not super enlightening, but is filled with awkward moments emphasized by bad acting. Right when the viewer believes they understand one character as way more fucked up then the other one, the identification (if it can be called that) switches. The film displays non-aggressive scenes in terms of narrative that create a feeling of the mundane and the understated. Reichardt allows this aesthetic not by fault, but by praise; because what seems like amateur filmmaking is one of the more realistic film styles seen recently. It seems that every fault, for which she can be either accredited or criticized, is bravery and inspiring in her part to make a film as subtle as this with a light and modest hand.

This film allows the viewer to feel sorrow and to understand that this is life. At one point in the woods, Kurt explains that “There are trees in the city, and garbage in the forest, so what is the difference?” This observation explains the ambiguity and amalgamation of ideals and “reality” that exemplifies Reichardt’s themes. The exploration of nostalgia combats the traditional ideological view of how to handle moving on in life and the sorrows of growing old. The sorrow of getting old, having kids, the pressures of citizenry to society, and the growing apart of old friends is all still joy. It is just old joy.

© 2006 Myles David Jewell. All rights reserved.

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