In some ways I think of Old Joy as the direct antithesis of a Peckinpah-Tarantino axis of masculinity.
–Jonathan Raymond, Dennis Lim, “Change is a Force of Nature” (New York Times 26 March 2006)
The combination of uncertainty about the future and the pressures on the present creates this mood. The White House is well aware of this. You hear the word “recovery” all the time because they don’t dare use the word “prosperity.”
–Air America, Old Joy
“There’s no such thing as a bad question.” This observation by a speaker on Air America works a few ways in Old Joy. While the film appears to focus on the evolving friendship of Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), it is, as well, a meditation on political and moral ideals. They’re not fixed, they’re not always articulated. But they inevitably give way to questions and frustrations, self-reflection and, perhaps, self-understanding.
Such themes are hardly spelled out. A photographer in another incarnation, director Kelly Reichardt, who adapted Jonathan Raymond’s short story, uses the camera to suggest rather than pronounce. As Mark and Kurt — who have not seen one another for some years — embark on a road trip from Portland to Bagley Hot Springs, in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, they don’t say much about what they’re looking for.
Mark first appears in his backyard, his dog floppy and his wife Tanya (Tanya Smith) very pregnant. A bird chirps atop their roof; Mark meditates, a crew of ants scurries over a food find. Inside, the phone machine records Kurt’s voice, asking his friend to go with him. “I’m calling you,” he says. “Pick it up, man. You will not regret it.” When he invites Mark to come along to the Springs, Tanya looks dubious. Single close-ups show shadows over Mark and Tanya’s faces as they discuss the invite; Mark says she can come to, though she points out that she’s not “exactly up for camping.” Besides, she says glumly, it’s going to rain. Her dark hair covers one eye, she doesn’t even look at Mark when she says, “You’re just waiting for me to tell you it’s okay. You know you’re going, so I don’t know why we have to go through this thing of me letting you off the hook.”
You never see Tanya again, though her annoyance sets a frame for Mark’s decision to go, and the ensuing, gentle shifts in his demeanor. It’s not that he’s unhappy, exactly, more like he doesn’t know what he is, or why he’s in his situation. When you meet Kurt, scruffy and bearded and often wide-eyed, you get a sense of how Mark might have been once, and how he might miss that other self. Both men have found their own ways of retreating from confrontation: Mark hardly speaks, absorbs Tanya’s upset and slips away; Kurt, as he admits, can’t fathom taking on the regular next step that Mark has taken, becoming a father. “It’s so fucking brave, man,” he says. “I’ve never gotten myself into anything I couldn’t get myself out of. A baby is for real.” As much as Tanya’s body represents that reality, it’s unnerving. And so Mark makes his getaway.
As they head out of town, with Mark’s dog in the back seat — head out the window, ears flopping in the breeze — they catch up. Mark says that his dad recently left his mother (“At 70, he decided he didn’t want to be married anymore… Then he ended up with these fucking blood clots on his brain”), and points out that an old hangout, Sid’s record store, has been replaced by a smoothie shop (“Rejucination”). Kurt looks forward to the Springs: “It has this otherworldly peacefulness about it,” he promises. “You can really think.”
What they may be thinking about is hinted at: their faces show fleeting bits of responses to one another: pleasure, impatience, wonder and familiarity. Yo La Tengo’s lovely, allusive soundtrack offers emotional possibilities, but doesn’t instruct. Kurt ran into an old mutual friend at an impromptu party in Big Sur, featuring drums, bonfires, and “beautiful women.” “I think Yogi got laid,” recalls Kurt, though neither of them seems to care much what Yogi did. When they don’t quite find the Springs on the first day — Mark spots a road sign that’s “literally blank,” and Kurt’s a little less prepared than he suggested — they camp for an evening and set off again the next morning.
The film alternates between the expected and the odd angle: it remains in the back seat behind Kurt, watching through the windshield while Mark walks off to check in with Tanya by cell; and when they come on their “campsite,” an abandoned sofa and some debris just off the road, it again watches from inside the car as the guys check out what’s illuminated by their headlights. It’s good to be in “nature,” they want to agree, but Kurt points out, “It’s all one huge thing now. There’s trees in the city and garbage in the forest. It’s all the same now.” Yes and no. They practice aiming and shooting an air gun, pondering the proper masculine pose, one- or two-handed. “Everything’s about looking cool,” observes Mark.
Away from distractions, Kurt and Mark start to look inside. Mark leaves off the radio, they speak less and less. They sleep in Mark’s doggie tent (Kurt notes their own coolness: “We’re sleeping with the dog… she’s a girl”), they order eggs and toast at a diner in the morning.
Surrounded by trees and sky and water, they look both small and large, in long and close shots. While Kurt describes is theory of the universe — “I get it on a fundamental level,” he says, “The thing is that I have my own theory, the universe is falling, man” — the camera shows each face separately, intent on the abstractions and perspectives he’s describing, the tear-shaped universe, the distance you need to gain a sense of order. Old Joy never makes their experience at the Springs explicit, but asks you to consider your own perspective on it, your informed guesses at what they share and what they know as individuals.
As your experience may diverge from theirs, the film offers a metaphor for reading, as the environment becomes at once a projection, frame, and mirror for subjective states. It may be, as Kurt describes an encounter with a “cashier lady” he met in a dream, that “sorrow is just worn out joy.” It may be that Mark and Kurt miss one another as each embodies for the other the idealism they’ve lost. As the Air America interludes hint, their loss is related to a national sensibility, a liberalish one anyway, lapsing hopes for community and structural changes, increasing focus on individual and immediate needs. But the connection isn’t insistent, the revelation isn’t grand. They return to their lives, subtly different from before. Their faces imply, barely, that each has slowed for a moment, feels less pressured.