By Afra Nariman
Old Joy (2006)
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Daniel London, Will Oldham
Two old friends who are each in different places in their lives take a short camping trip and come to realize the ways in which they have each changed over the years.
You wouldn’t expect a film that runs about an hour and 10 minutes to be able to be so effective at what it does. As a director, Reichardt has continuously explored the theme of friendship in her films. Old Joy, adapted from a short story written by Jon Raymond (as many of her films are), is firstly a story about an evolving friendship that has dwindled over the years of adulthood. It’s also about the value of nature, individuality, commitment, growing up and community. Yes, it is all of those things and more, in just over an hour of run time.
The first thing you notice in the film is how grounded it is, both in the lives of the extremely real and relatable characters, and in the natural surrounding of the story. Like most, if not all of her films, it takes place in the Pacific Northwest. The set up is done quickly and efficiently. Before you know it, the two friends are on the road, driving up to the Oregon woods. On their drive we are immersed in the truly mesmerizing landscapes. As they drive and the film focuses not on their conversations initially, but just on captivating us through the sublimity of the nature around them, we hear enchanting and hypnotically refreshing music that accompanies the drive, which leads us to feel a certain level of peace and calmness, just as they do. In a description of the place that they are heading to, Kurt says to Mark:
This notion of nature being an escape from the noise of the city, the pressure of society, is a constant throughout the film. Just as Kurt and Mark do, we become enraptured in the simplicity of their surroundings and enchanted with the silent, yet beautifully special ambiance of nature.
In an extremely sophisticated way, the film explores the distinction between the noise of society and the blissfulness of silence in nature, where nothing matters but the sublimity of the moment. Aside from their numerous statements and conversations about this dichotomy, an element of the filmmaking that speaks to it is the use of the car-radio. While driving in the city, Mark listens to political podcasts. We hear the social/political issues of the time, the tensions and obstacles that society is facing and the misery and controversy of reality. On the other hand, while he is driving with Kurt in nature, away from society, they listen to mesmerizing music and the natural sounds of nature, often represented by peaceful silence. The contrast between the simplicity of nature, where societal pressure, noise and responsibility is nonexistent, and the complexity of the pressure and expectations of society, where the opposite is true, is in a way reminiscent of the differences between the two friends and their differing approaches to life.
Kurt and Mark are in two completely different places in their life. This distinction is a point of emphasis and a subtly explored topic of tension between the two old friends over the course of their camping trip. Mark is a soon-to-be father, he has a wife, a steady job and does work in the community. He has embraced the societal pressure and responsibility that comes with his matured age. Adversely, Kurt is a bachelor and doesn’t really do anything. In reference to Mark’s upcoming leap into fatherhood, Kurt admits that he never commits to anything that he cannot get out of. These are two completely opposite kinds of people, and very real archetypes in life. Some people grow out of their twenties with grace and efficiency, embrace their maturing years and developed responsibilities; and some, like Kurt, continue to embrace the blissfulness of youth and avoid any and all responsibilities. This divergence has led to a wall standing in between their friendship. Their friendship has changed. This camping trip serves as a bonding moment in which both characters come to terms with the reality of their lives: Mark as a soon-to-be father, and Kurt perhaps ultimately realizing that it’s time for him to make some changes.
Although the film is short and doesn’t try too hard, we come to really know each character on a personal level through small tidbits of subtle conversation in which they reveal themselves to us. They touch on the choices that they have made and reveal themselves to be real people; meaning what they are going through and who each of them are, is not something fictional. We may all know people like each of them. This film’s story really happens. Their paralleled lives and personalities will make you think about your own life, the lives of those around you and if you’re still in your early twenties like myself, it will make you think of where your life is going and what you want out of the next ten years or so. It’s a reflective film about the human experience and reality of growing up in a world that expects you to do so with grace. It’s a story about individuality, but the near-impossibility of it due to societal pressure and expectations. In such a short amount of time, Old Joy is able to accomplish a great deal of depth. It is a story of a diverging friendship in the face of growing up, the sublimity of nature verses the complexity of society, and ultimately the parallels between those two themes. Although growing up and living in society is harder than embracing a youth that has come and gone and adhering to a life void of responsibility, ignoring the noise of society, not dissimilar to the way that nature does; its something that most people do. A life without commitment can often times feel unfulfilling, especially if you are relying on others to embrace the freedom of youth alongside of you, as Kurt hoped Mark would.