19. Worn-out joy
August 2nd, 2020
The first time I saw Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, I was in my early twenties, a design student living in Brighton in a powder blue terraced house of six. From the comfort of a disintegrating leather couch we found on the street, my friend Tom and I watched this quiet, delicate film about two old friends attempting to reconnect on a camping trip in Oregon. At that point in my life I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, but I had a robust catalogue of references (mostly musicians and designers) that suggested it was a place I wanted to visit—every Decemberists or Death Cab for Cutie record like a postcard from a patient friend. Years before I would ever sit in a hot spring or squint up at impossible redwoods, Old Joy felt like a film commissioned by the Oregon tourism board purely for my benefit. I was vaguely aware that it was also trying to tell me something about male friendship, but back then I was too busy missing that forest for the literal trees. Rewatching the film this week for the first time in over a decade, it became much clearer.
Mark (Daniel London) is a soon-to-be father living in the suburbs and failing to meditate. Kurt (Will Oldham) is disheveled and pot-bellied, prone to cosmic waffling and modest yet unexecuted plans. The film, barely 70 minutes long, documents an overnight camping trip the two men take when Kurt reappears via rambling voicemail and suggests a drive to Bagby Hot Springs, a couple hours south of Portland. (They also take Mark’s dog Lucy, played by Reichardt’s dog, also named Lucy.) It’s as economical as the short story of the same name by Jonathan Raymond that inspired it, but wrings much out of dialogue so familiar it stings. Kurt describes a recent trip to Ashland as “…amazing. Transformative. I’m at a whole new place now, really.” Later, as the two sit around a fire taking shots at empty cans of Hamm’s with a BB gun, Kurt talks about night classes he’s taking, despite knowing more than the teachers and students about “quarks and super-strings and all that shit.” You may have met a Kurt of your own. If you live on the west coast, there’s probably one within spitting distance.
What was unclear to me at 21 but unmistakable at 34 is how the film portrays masculinity and the brittleness of male friendships. Kurt and Mark are comfortable in their nostalgia as they drive out of the city past dilapidated post-industrial buildings, but their differences are harder to ignore as their trip continues. Both are sensitive and progressive, ostensibly emotionally literate, but they still struggle with reconciling how their lives have changed since the heyday of their friendship, or maybe admitting that their heyday is behind them. All of which makes the film sound, as both Kurt and Mark would put it, heavy, but Kelly Reichardt’s direction (and Yo La Tengo’s dreamy score) make it tender, and—by the time the two friends reach Bagby—possibly even hopeful, if only for the length of a soak in the Oregon woods.
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