Old Joy (Kino International)

The Beat movement in literature is said to have begun in 1952 with Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes. No such specific date that I know is cited for the movement’s spread to films. (Underground film is something else.) The first Beat picture that I can remember didn’t come until almost forty years later, with Richard Linklater’s Slacker in 1991. Since then there has been a fairly steady stream.

I’d dub them Listless Films, even though that term is easy to misunderstand. The people in these films, mostly in their twenties, are not dull or lazy. Some of them even have jobs. But they are unexcited. They thrill not. The chief aim of the Listless Film is to present characters, usually intelligent, who have no kind of dynamism. Dynamism is the enemy. They reject the world that they find themselves spilled into at an age when they are supposed to join that world. They are like products of a national university who decline their diplomas.

The reasons for their attitudes have now been so thoroughly discussed that a Listless Film doesn’t even bother to explain them. It assumes that we understand, and if at this late date we don’t understand, then the film is simply not for us. But a distinguishing quality among these films is that—gently hermetic though they may seem at first—the best of them, like Linklater’s, touch us. Some of them, like the recent Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski, remain self-enclosed: they seem made only for audiences of people like the ones on screen. But a good Listless Film carries a double melancholy for all: it makes us sad for its characters and sad for the world that has thus affected them.

Old Joy is such a film, though it needs a bit of patience. For a considerable time—perhaps its first third—we respond to its floating tempo, its abhorrence of plot, its mere traversal of hours and days, as if it were going to be only one more acceptable member of the Listless school. Then the form becomes clearer, and—curiously—when we can foresee the shape of the piece, it becomes deeper. The very form of the film enlists Old Joy in the double melancholy group. The place is Oregon, beginning in Portland. Mark is married, and his wife is pregnant. He has an old friend, Kurt, who is unmarried and uncommitted in every avenue of possible commitment. Kurt floats from job to job, place to place, collective to collective. He persuades Mark to come away with him for a couple of days before settling into fatherhood. Kurt knows of a hot springs retreat up in the Cascade Mountains, and there they head.

They travel in Mark’s slick new station wagon, whose radio, down in Portland, blasted one of those phone-in talk shows in which strident people vent opinions on political subjects. Such talk fades away. The sound track through much of the mountain trip provides quasi-abstract picking on a guitar. Soon the main connections with the world below are Mark’s cell-phone calls to his wife, to report and to find out how she is. (The wife is implicitly a kind of impediment to freedom, which is notable since the director, Kelly Reichardt, is a woman.) The only persistent strain of domesticity through the film is Mark’s dog, which accompanies him and Kurt—a lovely golden retriever that connotes firesides and all the rest of it.

The two men spend their first night on some abandoned furniture in a campsite. They sit around a fire and do some target shooting with an air pistol they find there, while Kurt divests himself of such ashram wisdom as his belief that the universe is tear-shaped, a tear dropping through space. The next day they spend at the hot springs, each man relaxing in his own tub, where again Kurt ruminates: “Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.”

So this is the story of a two-day excursion for two old friends before they split, possibly forever. One view of the story can be that Mark is quaffing his last draught of freedom before he settles into bourgeois life, without regret but with knowledge of what he is leaving. Another view is that Kurt is full of bravado: he means what he says about the way he lives, but he knows what he is missing. Anyway, each of them knows that there is a serious price to be paid for the way the other one lives.

When they get back to Portland, Mark drops Kurt in front of the apartment house where he is now crashing. There is no scene of parting: in a long shot they simply part. When Mark drives off, the strident political spiel resumes on his car radio. We follow Kurt as he idles through bits of his lifestyle— waiting patiently for a date who doesn’t show up, gazing curiously into the window of a Chinese herbal shop, slipping some change to a panhandler—just lolling in his universe. And now we sense that the film has been one tick in history’s clock.

One aspect of Reichardt’s directing is nervy: she shoots a great deal of landscape through the window of the moving car. (I’ve read that this is a characteristic of her two previous features, unseen by me.) Ultimately she smoothes us into acceptance of her purpose in these moving shots: life as transition, as temporary glimpses, a world around us that teases simply because we must move through it.

Another matter enters the viewer’s mind: homoeroticism. It is virtually impossible to see a film nowadays about two men going off together, especially into the woods, without a glimmer of suspicion about sex. This glimmer is heightened because, at the hot springs, nude Kurt massages nude Mark’s shoulders as his friend lies in his tub. There is not the slightest overt sexual move, but for enlightened us nowadays, the thought of some basic attraction lurks. After such Freudian knowledge, what forgiveness?

Daniel London is Mark and gives him a credible schizoid being: his response to these two days that are essentially the way he used to live and also his tacit linkage to his new life. Will Oldham plays Kurt like a man who has survived an existence that was supposed to have nullified him and who has some quiet pride in it. The film’s title, too, is duplex: joy in Mark’s last taste of an old life; Kurt’s joy that he is still in it. Peter Sillen shot the film in Super 16, presumably for reasons of flexibility and intimacy, but the image definition is high and the colors speak. Reichardt wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond (based on a short story of his), and they have made it painlessly symbolic of two worlds. Reichardt also edited the picture capably. About her directing, after praising her simplicity, one has to praise her daring. To make this film took considerable conviction—and, for an artist, conviction usually entails courage.

This article originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.