Directed by Kelly Reichart. 2006.

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Two friends in their early thirties meet to renew their previous friendship on a camping trip in the gorgeous Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Kurt (Will Oldham) is a balding free spirit, while Mark (Daniel London) is a working man who is about to take on the responsibility of being a father. Both men seek to recreate the magic that once brought them together but their connection is now so tenuous and their worlds so divided that it seems as if there is no longer anything to hold onto, even memory.  

Kelly Reichart’s superb Old Joy is a film of rare beauty unburdened by typical male-bonding clichés, more the “big chill out” than The Big Chill. While it is the story of male friendship, it is not about plot or even character but a film of mood and atmosphere that tells its story with gestures, expressions, and silences punctuated by the ambient sounds of nature. On their drive through pristine countryside to the music of Yo La Tengo, Mark listens to Air America talk radio bemoaning the state of the Democratic Party and talks about how his father decided to leave his mother when he turned seventy but nothing is said about what the two shared together in the past.  

When Kurt fails to find the turnoff to the Bagby Hot Springs near Oregon’s Mount Hood, the two (three if you include the dog) spend the night at an abandoned campsite, prompting Kurt to remark that “there are trees in the city, and garbage in the forest, so what is the difference?” At the campsite, Kurt relates his experiences of recent trips to Big Sur and Ashland which he calls “transcendent” and “life-changing” and about how he took a course in physics but knew more than the professor and volunteers his theory that the universe is enclosed in a tear that is falling and has been for millennia, but Mark seems to hardly notice.  

He only perks up when he receives phone calls on his cell from his pregnant wife (Tanya Smith) who had only given grudging consent to the trip, sensing that the pot smoking Kurt was not a good influence. The next day they reach the springs and enjoy a moment of peace in the hot tub but it is interrupted by Kurt’s telling Mark how much he misses him and how something is wrong with their relationship which Mark denies but the sense is that something has been lost forever.  

Nothing really happens in Old Joy. There are almost no peak dramatic moments but almost every scene has subtle undertones of meaning. A sense of loss permeates the film, the loss perhaps of a time when people were connected and fighting for a cause meant human involvement rather than the distancing of today’s radio talk shows or anonymous Internet message boards. When the aging hippie shares a Chinese proverb that “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy”, it feels as if the film becomes a metaphor for the joy that seems to be wearing out in an age approaching its zero point.  


Howard Schumann
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