American Indie director Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) is very much about listening in a noisy world where many people speak constantly and say very little. Reichardt shows us how to absorb what is all around us, and to be present in it, rather than constantly seeking or searching for some ‘thing’ more.
American Indie director Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) is such a sparse and spacious film that some viewers will undoubtedly find the soup so thin as to be insipid. But others will find flavours in the broth that make it delicate and even elegant at moments. Two friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham, Palace Brothers guitarist/vocalist), simply take a road trip to a secluded hot spring. That’s it.
Silence, both around people and between them, is Old Joy’s unique ingredient, and Reichardt deftly shows how silence can be both empty and pregnant with unspoken but very dense meanings. Almost all of what little dialogue there is takes place between two seemingly ordinary men.
Despite its dearth of words, Old Joy is very much about listening in a noisy world where many people speak constantly and say very little. The silence between the two men is contrasted with the talk radio station that plays endless all-male political babble that goes seemingly nowhere. Old Joy is about listening to silence, and ‘hearing’ with all of our senses. The long silences at times reminded me of the calm fireside chats between men in Easy Rider where pregnant pauses make what little dialogue there is all the more precious.
For feminists the film offers the novelty of representing the threat that men pose to other men, instead of seeing them as a danger to the ubiquitous female victim. Men’s fear of other men is an emotion that is seldom explored in such a real and visceral way as Reichardt achieves in one scene that lasts only about four minutes on-screen but feels like an eternity, when Mark is in a particularly vulnerable position. As such, male viewers are positioned to experience a range of emotions that are almost always exclusively associated with female characters.
“For feminists the film offers the novelty of representing the threat that men pose to other men, instead of seeing them as a danger to the ubiquitous female victim”
Set in Oregon’s lush Cascade mountains, Old Joy is a spacious film, indeed sometimes so spacious that it can make viewers feel empty or lost, but Reichardt shows us how to absorb what is all around us, and to be present in it, rather than constantly seeking or searching for some ‘thing’ more. This is perhaps the point of the film’s eponymous version of ‘Joy’. It reminds us of a variety of pleasure that has been lost to modern consumer culture, with its acquisitive worldview and loss of satisfaction with having basic needs met. When Mark thanks Kurt after their ‘trip’ he says in parting, “that was really great, man.” Some audiences might beg to differ, but for those who crave more appreciation for the simplicity of real life and less Coke Life, Old Joy is a return to the 1960’s counter-cultural values that had hippies ‘dropping out’ and ‘tuning in’. It is probably no wonder, then, that Kurt says at one point during the road trip, while smoking a doobie, that the closing of a local record shop where vinyl can be bought and traded, is “the end of an era”. We see the last vestiges of American industrial society lying like gravestones along the roadside as the two men drive through the economically depressed Oregon ‘timber belt’ with evocative Yo La Tengo folk music playing on the soundtrack. In some ways the film is a swansong to simpler times, when work was done with heavy machinery and human bodies and hands. In the final scene, set back in the city, an unemployed ‘lumber jack’ asks Kurt for some change. Both Kurt and the stranger seem lonelier and more lost in this populated cityscape than Kurt did when he and Mark were actually lost on a remote road somewhere in the mountains.
Reichardt’s most recent film, Certain Women, won the top award at the 2016 London Film Festival. Despite being a latecomer to this accomplished indie filmmaker, I will definitely be scanning the horizon for her next film, on which she is collaborating with author Patrick DeWitt in an adaptation of his novel Undermajordomo Minor. Watch this space.