Old Joy, Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2006, 76'
It smells the way the ground does right after a rainy night over the city of Portland. The sun rises and it’s just another day in the life of Mark and Tanya, a young couple expecting their first child who are slowly starting to imagine what this new chapter of their lives will be like. That’s when the house phone rings and the answering machine picks up. “Hey, Mark”. It’s an old friend named Kurt, calling to say that he’s back in the city and it would be great to see each other.
That’s how Kelly Reichardt’s second full-length feature film begins, a portrait-film of two friends that meet back up years later and decide to travel together to the mountains, perhaps for the last time at this stage in their lives. The film is based on Jonathan Raymond’s short story that, in turn, was inspired by Justine Kurland’s photography book entitled Old Joy. This book collected images of a naturist community in the forests of the Northwest: naked bodies, rituals, wild rivers, and ancient trees.
We return to road film country, as was the case with River of Grass. Yet here, the spirit is different; no one runs away, nobody attempts to re-write their destiny. Mark and Kurt are in their thirties, that moment when everything supposedly settles into place, or at least that’s what they were told when they were young. They still have a long way to go before “being grown-ups, maturing, and making decisions”.
Kurt suggests a trip to the mountains, to the Bagby hot springs near Mount Hood. A night out camping, just like old times. While Mark has his doubts at first, he quickly accepts and starts getting everything ready: sleeping bag, beer, road map, and the company of his dog Lucy, all loaded into the family’s old, light brown Volvo 850, with Oregon plate XVX-460.
In road movies, it’s essential to know what’s playing on the car radio while the lead characters pass through landscapes. Two things play on the radio in Old Joy: on one side we have political chat shows talking about civil rights, the Republican party, and Democrat defeats. On the other, there is road music, in this case from the mythical Yo La Tengo, the band responsible for the film’s original score: electric guitar, bass, drums, a quintessential rock trio that serves as the gas needed to move westward.
From the music, we move to the sounds of the film: the forests, nature, rivers, wind. Old Joy’s sound mixing is a masterpiece, as if you could close your eyes and travel with them through these landscapes. Then, of course, we have the conversations of the two old friends that, at some point along the way, lost that connection that seemed unbreakable. This is the fourth sound that spans the entire film: Kurt and Mark, with their silences, dialogues, and stories they tell by the fire. They talk about space and time, about fatherhood, friends that are gone, about fear, friendship, and making important decisions that last a lifetime. They talk about record stores that have closed for good, about run-ins with strangers, mysterious book stores, and dreams in which someone might write: “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.”
“I miss you”, confesses Kurt, who is played by musician Will Oldham.
The film rests in the spaces that Kelly Reichardt returns to time and time again in her catalogue of films: intimate duos, American landscapes, stories of friendship, the passing of time and of life, emotional memory, and a certain melancholy that connects nature and humanity.
Seeing this film in March of 2021, when we are still living through the throws of a pandemic, gives it a new, much more physical sense than in any other moment: this is also a film about distances and the people we love; about friendship and physical contact; about bodies and how we can cleanse ourselves of fear; about the loneliness of those that are alone, and the loneliness of the passing of time.
Seeing this film in March of 2021 also reminds us of Tsai Ming-liang and her last film, Days (2020), which is another masterful exercise in loneliness and physical company.
There are certain films -records, books, conversations, memories- that will stay with us as if they were a map of our lives: “We’re here / We’re going here”. They move through us. This is one of those films, at least for me it was. It was the first Kelly Reichardt film that I saw, more than ten years ago, when my life was more focused on music rather than film, and Will Oldham was one of those musicians that I faithfully followed and listened to non-stop. This is one of those films with no end, that one can come back to time and time again, forever. One of those films that raises precise questions on the way back home from the cinema:
Where are all of those friends that were important but disappeared one day?
What happened to them?
What happened to all of us?