Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 17 January 2008
Source Kino Video DVD
Reviews Old Joy by Beth
There aren’t many films you could recommend to a foreigner who wanted to get an accurate idea about America, especially the America where most people I know live; an America that is equal parts unspoiled open space and garish sprawl, an America that is informed but not involved, an America that mixes its cultural unease with the unending drive to shed any cultural baggage. One that gives this sense is Old Joy. It is a small film, but calmly observant of its subjects, and the result is a subtle and evocative vision of the very particular American present day.
The other possibility is, of course, that Old Joy is so minimalist and so nuanced that it’s impossible to penetrate without having a perfectly pitched cultural ear already in place. I found Old Joy’s scenes of trailer-studded nature unfolding outside a car window and bearded men smoking weed and pontificating so familiar that it couldn’t help but be evocative. A viewer from Britain or India (or hell, even from Mississippi) might find it merely tiresome. Though coming in at under 80 minutes, many scenes roll in a glacial near real-time. For many reviewers, this was a graceful and studied way to portray the characters and their lives. For others, it was simply tedium. The difference may be in what one brings to it.
Mark and Kurt are old buddies. While exposition is minimal, the actors’ naturalistic performances make it brilliantly clear who these people are. They probably met in college. Bummed around for a while. Were roommates until Kurt flaked. Now Mark is married with a child on the way (though still meditating and listening to exasperatingly earnest liberal talk radio), while Kurt drifts around, attending various happenings and borrowing money from a long list of old friends. Kurt has wandered back into town and invited Mark on a camping trip. The film chronicles their slow progress through the Oregon hills, with much of the running time focused on the silences and quiet platitudes that make up most of their interaction. It’s not gripping cinema, exactly, but the subtext is obviously that these men once shared much more, and that neither quite knows how to reconcile this new, empty relationship.
Early on in the trip, after Kurt has predictably gotten them lost and delayed the start of their hike until the next day, Kurt stumbles by acknowledging this emptiness. “There’s something between us, man, and I don’t like it.” Mark, who has given up the roaming life for a more suburbanized existence, immediately denies that anything is wrong. Kurt beats a hasty retreat, reassuring Mark that everything is fine, that he was just “talking crazy.” The slip is the only moment when the film shows its hand, yet even then, the real interaction is nearly subterranean. Mark is a meek man, clearly burdened by the stresses of his grown-up life. His denial of anything wrong is awkward and unconvincing. But Kurt accepts it. And in that acceptance, he acquiesces to the idea that Mark’s responsible life, and Mark’s swallowed emotions, no matter how unfulfilling or unconvincing, are more socially acceptable – are indeed better and more desirable – than the open, free, “counter-culture” perpetual adolescence that Kurt still occupies. Even though Mark does not want to judge Kurt, the culture that Mark has surrendered to does indeed judge Kurt, and Kurt knows it. By the end of the film, the man who probably started out believing himself to be the happier of the two may now see himself a failure, at least a man more dejected than his burdened companion.
Whether Kurt is actually a failure or not, and who is happier in his chosen life, is totally ambivalent. While watching this film, you can feel something stern and parental within yourself trying to convince you that Mark, with his wedding ring and Volvo and baby on the way, is more fulfilled than Kurt, while the inner teenager reminds you that Kurt is way more free, man. And inevitably, as with all maturity, the feeling is that the stern parent, while much more complicated and sad, might be kinda right. But there is no denying the loss.
Foreign viewers might not remark on any homoerotic touches to Old Joy, with its hippies-at-the-hot-springs nudity and affectionate physical contact. But as a film about Americans, the possibility of homoeroticism—and the surety of homophobia—has to be dealt with. When the men arrive at the hot spring, they strip in silence and slip into separate cedar-log tubs to steam. After a while, Kurt gets out of the tub, dons his dapper cutoffs, and gives Mark a gentle shoulder massage. While there’s no real sexual overtone to Kurt’s actions, Mark’s reaction is initially one of wincing discomfort. Even among liberals, hippies, pot-smoking tree-huggers, the cultural baggage of American masculine reserve, of our old Puritan rejection of sensuality, is still very much around. Mark eventually relaxes, accepting Kurt’s belated gesture of friendship, but the gulf between them isn’t bridged. The “something between them” is nothing less than American culture.
Do you have to be an American, maybe even a liberal, northern American, to read all these cues and appreciate this film? Possibly. Even with its satisfying familiarity, it is monumentally slow. (There’s even a shot of a slug. A long shot.) The conversations are noise as an excuse for subtext. But the image they capture is as real as any I’ve seen. In many ways, Old Joy’s subtlety and its incredibly light touch are downright un-American. It’s as though the only way to truly document America is by stepping outside our ham-fisted, brutal cultural grammar, and simply observing with a quiet grace and openness that’s far outside our normal vision.