Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Old Joy

Photo: Will Oldham and Daniel London, Old Joy

This is a low budget independent film directed and co-written by Kelly Reichardt that recently had four screenings at ACMI. Maybe it’s the seasonal vacuum of quality cinema one expects this time of year, or the film has some reputation preceding it, or the fact that I saw it at its final ACMI screening on Sunday – I was surprised at the huge turnout. ACMI’s smaller cinema 1 was packed to capacity.

Old Joy is a quietly accomplished film. Poetic and observational, aspects of it remind me of different films. The observational aspect reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, particularly the capturing of seemingly meaningless passing details. The poetic nature and cryptic relationship dynamics reminded me of the quietly confident nature of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Iklimer (Climates, 2006), my favourite film at last year’s MIFF.

Like Climates, the film is a nuanced reflection on a disintegrating relationship. The premise is simple: two thirty-something friends from college, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), meet up after a long break for a weekend camping trip to a secluded spot in the mountains.

There is tension between the characters, and the film observes this without giving clarification for the causes or any resolution. Mark seeks permission to go camping from his expectant partner Tanya (Tanya Smith) who appears not overly happy at the idea.

Mark’s character seems quietly introspective (he’s meditating in the garden when Kurt’s call is made) and doesn’t talk a lot. When Kurt first suggests they take Mark’s aging Volvo station wagon rather than Kurt’s beaten up old truck, there is a hint of someone who is a hanger-on, an idea supported by Kurt borrowing ten dollars from Mark.

For Mark, the outing seems to represent an escape from domestic life while for Kurt it’s another adventure. While neither appears to have progressed materially in life (nor particularly inclined to), Mark has concerns about family, home and security while Kurt seems to have changed little since college days. Close friends at college, they have drifted apart and Kurt is keen to bridge the divide that time and circumstances have created.

In the absence of dialogue, we get a sense of what goes on in Mark’s head by the radio program he is listening to in the car as it travels out of the city. This is a very clever device that adds a subtle and interesting layer to the film. Discussion of the war in Iraq and other social issues are heard on a talkback station. Simultaneously, there are interesting shots of passing urban, urban fringe, industrial and then rural landscapes as the duo gradually progress on their journey. The scenery is nicely photographed avoiding the cliché of being postcard beautiful (which would have been an easy trap to fall into with the natural splendour of the Oregon mountain ranges).

Some may find this boring; I found it fascinating as it captures the quiet minutiae of life that are usually overlooked in mainstream films attempting to overwhelm the senses. It’s consistent with my belief that everyone’s life is worthy of a story and reminds me of Matt Riviera’s 10 Thoughts on Watching and Appreciating Film. Point three: If a film is slow get into the Zone. For me, I didn’t need to get into the Zone; I was right in there with it and enjoying the ride.

The meandering music of Yo La Tengo (who also contributed to the vastly different Shortbus) really added a nice ambience to the road journey. The dialogue, mostly by Kurt was also interestingly idiosyncratic but believable – including egocentric ideas about the basis of the universe. My interpretation of the dialogue was that Kurt was trying to appeal to the intellectualism shared during their college days and hadn’t really moved on in life as Mark had with his ‘real-life’ concerns. Kurt notes an uncomfortable gulf between them.

The title derives from a dream Kurt has in which a woman tells him that “sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy”. Sorrow is the subtle theme of the film. By the director’s minimalist approach, we are left to trust our own instincts as to what has happened in the past (in terms of friendship), what has been lost and what may become of the protagonists.

I found the destination of the men, Bagby Hot Springs, quite uplifting. It reminded me of drives I had taken to places like Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges outside of Melbourne or, more recently, to Stephensons Falls in the Otway Ranges. The latter location has special nostalgic significance on a personal level as it was at this place that the recent photos of my late son Abhi were taken, as posted with my review of Volver.

Of some interest is that the film was co-produced by Todd Haynes, director of significant films like Safe and Far From Heaven.

If your idea of a night out is a visit to the local cinemaplex, forget Old Joy. If you happen to get the opportunity to see it, don’t expect a masterpiece or anything profound. In its own quiet melancholy way and oozing with authenticity, it is a beautifully poetic rumination on human relationships that ends as subtly and ambiguously as it starts. It leaves a quiet resonance in the mind as one leaves the cinema or even now as I recall it. If hope it comes out on DVD as I’d like to buy it.

Official site / IMDB

Dir, Ed: Kelly Reichardt Rating: Unclassified Duration: 76 min Genre: drama Language: English Country: USA Release: 4/1/07 – 7/1/07, ACMI Scr: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt Prod: Joshua Blum, Todd Haynes, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Neil Kopp, Mike S. Ryan, Anish Savjani, Rajen Savjani Sound Des: Eric Offen Phot: Peter Sillen Prod Des: Morgan Currie Mus: Yo La Tengo Cast: Daniel London, Will Oldham, Tanya Smith


Marina said...

This is one I hadn't heard about but sounds interesting. Great review.

George Papadopoulos said...

Hi Paul. Just read your absorbing review. I am the local distributor of OLD JOY and indeed the film will be coming out on DVD in a few months time. No fixed date yet. We are endeavouring for a few screenings in Sydney and more in Melbourne in the next few months. Just thought you would like to know.

Accent Film Entertainment

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, George. That's terrific news. I was just thinking today that I'd love to see it again on the big screen, so I'll certainly endeavour to see it if and when it gets a local screening. I'm surprised how quickly you found this post - you did a Google search?

You may recall that I phoned you some months ago enquiring about a local release date for Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation. I notice that this title is not mentioned on your website.

I made a reference in my post to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates. I noticed today that SBS is screening Ceylan's previous film Distant (Uzak, 2002) on Tuesday 11/1/07 at 11.30pm. I rarely watch films on the TV, but I will be taping this. I haven't seen it, but based on Climates, I'd suggest it may be well worth a look.

delon melvile said...

Paul, the Friday night screening only had about 35 people. Sparse.

I think much of the audience would have been the local music punters, who come out in droves to watch Bonnie Prince Billy (aka Will Oldham), when he tours. (and Yo La Tengo)

I have seen both at the Corner and PRince bandroom, Throughly enjoyed their music (enjoy current tense).

Yeah, it was more mood peace (sic) and I felt that the NPR Air America broadcasts were somewhat discombobulating and gave it a polemic edge that was unwarranted. Not a comment on the politics, I just felt that the contrast was disconcerting. But perhaps that was the director's intention.

Those opening scenes highlighted the contradictions in Mark's life. Those shrill electrical appliances as a backdrop to the yoga or meditation he was practising.

I did not see much similarity to Broken Flowers, but Jim Jarmusch's patented mark is that tracking shot of the urban detritus the director showed in this film.

I was sure asceticism wasthe prominent theme and sorrow was merely a by product. I understand that the films title and tagline betrayed that theme however. But you can't exactly call the film "An ascetic journey to the Portland Wilderness, or Ascetic times at Tagby Springs" :D

Alas, fine film.

@George. Good to see about the extra screenings, I was speaking to the night manager at Nova last night, and told him I saw this, and he was interested in seeing it, but missed the short screening.

Paul, good review, as always.


Paul Martin said...

Hi Delon, I'm glad you got the chance to see this little film, and I thought you'd like it. It's a pity that gems like this come and go with no fanfare and no-one even knows what they've missed. (Mind you, Pine Flat came and went late last year at ACMI, and I wish I never knew about it.)

It's been a long time since I saw any live music and was otherwise unaware of Bonnie Prince Billy and Yo La Tengo I only knew from Shortbus credits.

I agree that the broadcasts were perhaps unnecessary, but I found they blended OK. I agree that it was probably intended as a contrast to the visuals.

Broken Flowers - each time Bill Murray's character hit the road, we'd get a long take of approaching scenery. In one case it was a truck coming from ahead, we'd see it pass and remain visible in the rearview mirror. Observational cinema - just taking in things of no apparent consequence.

As far as the director's intention, the following is in her words as found on IMDB:

OLD JOY is the story of two old friends, Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), who reunite for a weekend camping trip in the Cascade mountain range east of Portland, Oregon. OLD JOY is a minimalist story of friendship, loss and alienation in the Bush era. For Mark, the weekend outing offers a respite from the pressure of his imminent fatherhood; for Kurt, it is part of a long series of carefree adventures. As the hours progress and the landscape evolves, the twin seekers move through a range of subtle emotions, enacting a pilgrimage of mutual confusion, sudden insight, and recurring intimations of spiritual battle. When they arrive at their final destination, a hot spring in an old growth forest, they must either confront the divergent paths they have taken, or somehow transcend their growing tensions in an act of forgiveness and mourning.

Looking at this, you can see where the broadcasts fit in. Without the radio, the time was anonymous. It was as if Reichardt was documenting the period.

I don't think ascetism was the main theme, but it certainly forms part of the plot. For more details on the director's intent and the genesis of the film's development, see the production notes on the offical site.

And looking at the pic on the opening screen of official site, weren't these two characters just beautifully portrayed? I found them completely believable. The silent ambiguity was deafening!

Thanks for your comments, Delon. This film had such a short screening that I was more interested in documenting it than in getting a response - so that's an unexpected bonus!

Paul Martin said...

Looking at The Creation comments on the official site, it seems there are three concurrent themes:
- The loss of friendship
- Meditation (ascetism)
- Politics and a lament about the "ineffectualism of the Left"

Reichardt calls it "a Cain and Abel story in reverse. Two estranged brothers traveling back into a primeval garden and reuniting".

Paul Martin said...

Anyone interested in this type of film may want to visit Unspoken Cinema's Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-thon hosted by Harry Tuttle of Screenville.

George Papadopoulos said...

Hi Paul

Just letting you know that OLD JOY will play a short season at Chauvel Cinema in Sydney from March 15.

Best Regards

Accent Film Entertainment

Paul Martin said...

I have just discovered that the Nova Cinema is screening Old Joy from May 3.