Lost in Forestation

Washington City Paper | October 20, 2006
Only the second film of Kelly Reichardt’s 12-year directing career, Old Joy is another road picture, albeit one that—intentionally—doesn’t travel very far. When two old pals head into the woods, the big event is that they get lost (which is hardly a surprise), while the goal is nothing more (or less) than a soak in a set of rustic hot tubs. Transcendence either doesn’t exist or is so faint that it barely transcends.

The 76-minute film opens with a few quick shots that set the cultural, if not the geographic, location. There’s a bird in a gutter, wind chimes, a man who’s meditating, and a woman who’s mixing up a shake that looks heavy on the chlorophyll. The man is Mark (Daniel London) and the woman is Tanya (Tanya Smith), who’s pregnant and expecting very soon. A break from impending fatherhood beckons with a call from an old friend, Kurt (Will Oldham). Bearded, pot-bellied Kurt, who looks a Buddha gone to seed, apparently hasn’t been seen in a while. But now he wants to go camping and to show Mark his recent discovery, the Bagby Hot Springs.

This is a real place, which sets the film in Oregon rather than, say, West Virginia. Mark and Kurt set out from Portland, that most Appalachian of West Coast cities, and then—after a stop so Kurt can buy some weed—head into the mountains. On the first night, they don’t find the springs and end up camping near a trash heap. By the light of day, the trail is easier to follow, and the two men eventually get their bath. Along the way, they listen to Air America and discuss parenting, friendship, astrophysics, the demise of used record stores, and the dream Kurt had, which explains the movie’s title. The two pals don’t have any breakthroughs, but when they part, it seems that something has been settled. Their friendship may not be ruptured, but it is not renewed.

Old Joy was scripted by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from the latter’s short story, and it has the guarded, calculatedly slight quality of a story by Raymond Carver or one of his many minimalist acolytes. Yet the movie owes just as much to indie rock, and not just because it stars Oldham and features a rippling, plinking Yo La Tengo score. Like Mutual Appreciation, the New York pop-scene sorta-romance that also opens this week, Reichardt’s film equates indie with lack of ambition, assertion, or outward emotion. Her movie is a fill-in-the-blanks experience that defines itself more by what it isn’t than what it is. It’s not Hollywood the way Matador is not Universal, or Will Oldham is not Brad Pitt. Is that not-ness enough? That probably depends on whether you identify with Mark or with Kurt.

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