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'Old Joy' Near Perfect

Friends reunite, toke and soak in this indie gem.

By Dorothy Woodend 5 Jan 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every second week.

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Togetherness and political correctness.

The other day I received an e-mail from a very nice man in Belfast, Ireland, who had lost faith in American independent cinema after the onslaught of puerile juvenilia embodied in such dreck as Napoleon Dynamite. Two words would perhaps renew his love for independent American film: Old Joy.

Director Kelly Reichardt's film is the story of two friends, Mark and Kurt, who go on a camping trip to visit Oregon's Bagby Hot Springs. That's the whole story in one sentence. But contained within these few simple events are an infinite number of possibilities. It's the world contained in a single moment, or what one of the characters calls a giant teardrop of the universe, falling forever through space and time. The film screens Jan. 5-8 and 10-11 at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, a perfect place to see this small, almost perfect film.

Marriage, mirth and malcontent

Mark (Daniel London) and his wife Tanya are expecting a baby. They are like many young, politically correct couples: filled with passive-aggressive energy, yet somehow sapped of joy. When Mark gets a phone call from his old friend Kurt inviting him on an overnight hike, you can almost see Mark itching to run from the weight of responsibility, and his wife's faintly disgusted gaze. Kurt (Will Oldham) is every wife's worst nightmare, a freewheeling, hippie man-child with the potbelly of an oversized toddler. This new age seeker travels from Big Sur to Ashland, sleeping on couches, bumming money for pot, free from the constraints of straight society, while subsisting on the kindness of friends and strangers. He is, as my sister would say, a "king baby," a man who refuses to live for anything other than his own wants and appetites. But he is not without some charm.

If Kurt is the living embodiment of Thoreau's statement, "Blessed are they who never read a newspaper, for they shall see Nature, and, through her, God." His friend Mark is opposite. Stretched with work, Mark listens to the babble of political debate on NPR, but seems to feel little of anything. They are the twin sides of America's fading love affair with the counter-culture, the ragged end of the pioneer-Walden Pond spirit that rears its head in places like the Burning Man festival.

Sadness seeps out of both men in different ways, but they still gamely set off for the fabled hot springs, toking up and drinking beer. The tone is of two people trying to recapture the fluid ease of something that was once as effortless as breathing. Everyone has had a friendship like that at one time; the immediacy and joy in each other's mere existence is like a gift. But life goes on, things change, and what was once so simple and easy becomes laboured. The subtle currents are instantly recognizable, but no less tragic. The old proverb about never being able to step in the same river twice is doubly true of friendship. All the landmarks are the same, but the water is different.

Inside this fluid landscape, it's easy to lose your way, which is exactly what happens to Kurt and Mark. They miss the signs nailed to trees indicating the right way to the hot springs, and end up camping at an old dump site, littered with dead lamps and tattered couches. Do you really need any more symbolism than that? Perhaps not, but Reichardt has a sureness of touch with the characters that makes their story never less than fascinating. They might be "types" (snaggy and shaggy) but that doesn't render them any less genuine. Indeed, it is their very familiarity that makes their story more affecting. Who has not known a Kurt, or a Mark, or felt the sting of loss as a relationship slowly melts away?

Garbage and flowers

In amongst the garbage and the flowers, the two friends shoot at beer cans and move uneasily around the changing nature of their bond. Is it better to say something or nothing at all? It's a question anyone in a long-time relationship has asked of themselves, and in some fashion Mark and Kurt resemble an old married couple, trying to recapture the spark in their marriage with a second honeymoon. They're too careful around each other, not wanting to upset the delicate charade that nothing has changed. "We're alright," says Mark to his friend's moan of anguish about missing him. There is no mistaking the mixture of caution, love and condescension that Mark fixes his friend with. It's a pool of emotion deep enough to drown in, but as long as they both stay on the surface, the illusion of friendship can be maintained.

If the loss of youth and innocence is the subtext of their conversations, the political and cultural implications of the film are present but never explicit. The impoverished state of the liberal values in the U.S. and the death of idealism is the least interesting part of the story, a burr of noise above the deep unmovable silence of the forest.

The other part of the film is the world through which these two men move, a fallen paradise, filled with junk in parts, but still insanely, almost ridiculously beautiful. I think God must love excess; why else make the purple mountain's majesty or sunsets so candy pink and gold they seem like Liberace on acid? It strikes me anew whenever I'm in the country: why such an abundance of beauty? It's an embarrassment of riches, a heaping Baroque splendour.

Or as Kurt says, "Sometimes you forget all this is out here." You could almost say the same thing about Reichardt's film; it has a gentle pace that, if you surrender to it, will reward you. It is much like sitting perfectly still in the forest. Before long, the world opens itself to you, and you begin to see things, like an enormous black slug inching his slow way across a mossy green rock, or a distant and perfect waterfall.

Road trip reverie

The road trip aspect of the film is another of its charms. God, how I love a road trip, even if it's only on film. The opportunity of letting your mind roam free, untethered to ordinary life, the country floating by outside the window, daydreaming for hours; really, there are few opportunities for such extended reverie. Watching the film, memories of road trips and hot springs I have known came floating back, such as going to Ainsworth Hot Springs in the 70s, when it was still a grotty limestone cave, in which you felt your way in utter blackness, the sharp sand cutting your feet, the air almost too hot to breath. Sometimes you bumped into an ancient hippie stupefied into somnolence by the heat. I always imagined that one day, I would step on a drowned body, someone who succumbed to the near boiling temperature, and simply slipped beneath the black water.

One such moment of contact for Kurt and Mark does occur in the warm waters of Bagby, although thankfully there are no dead bodies involved, the opposite in fact. It's as if amniotic heat of the hot springs has returned them to a place of original innocence. There is something almost birth-like about this scene, from the pudenda pink of Kurt's shorts, to the naked fragility of the men's bodies luminous against the green gloom of the forest. But the moment is so lightly offered and gentle that it makes complete sense. There is only this one moment of contact, a single perfect instant, before the long drive back into the city, a return to shackles of domesticity in the case of Mark, or the meaningless rambles of Kurt, who in the film's closing moments, seems as if he has lost all his bearings, stepping on and off the city streets, searching for something as lost and unreachable as the recent past. The implications of their different choices -- the weight of family versus the rootless existence of a wanderer -- each come with a different set of gains and losses as the gossamer strands of their shared history float away. But its very existence is cause in some way for happiness.

"Sorrow is simply used-up joy," is the line from Kurt's dream that he tells his friend, and it is a perfect one-sentence summation of so much of life's contradictions.

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