Kelly Reichardt's film Old Joy is as fragile as the small, gray bird that flutters from an eave in the opening shot. "Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul," wrote Emily Dickinson. If there is a breath of hope in Old Joy, it is of the Dickinson species.
Set in a beat-up utility van and the primeval forest of Oregon's Cascade Mountains, Old Joy—screening once at the Riverview as part of Sound Unseen—is about the end of a friendship and the near-extinction of the belief in a better future for oneself and the world. The film was shot just before the 2004 presidential election, and Reichardt marks the specific historical moment with the Air America broadcasts that play on the van's radio. "It's the end of an era," says Kurt (Will Oldham) when his buddy Mark (Daniel London) tells him that Sid's, Portland's legendary record store, is gone, replaced by a smoothie bar named Rejuicenation. That Old Joy is immensely sad without being a total bummer has to do with the tenderness with which Reichardt treats these two men, and the rapturous beauty of the ever more endangered natural world, which she captures in images and sounds that are as precisely chosen as they are ephemeral. (The sound design is as exquisite as it is in Gus Van Sant's recent films.) By its sheer existence, and the fact that it has been winning raves from critics and festival prizes around the world, Old Joy suggests that all is not yet lost.
The screenplay was co-written by Reichardt and the novelist Jonathan Raymond, based on Raymond's short story about two New Age political activists who, once close friends, grew apart as their lives took different directions. Mark has made a tentative peace with the system; he and his wife both have jobs and they are about to become parents. Kurt is penniless and about to be evicted. In the sense that the world they once inhabited has disappeared seemingly overnight, they are both without a place. But Kurt's situation is more dire, and his need for the intimacy that he and Mark once shared is far greater. If nothing else, the imbalance dooms the relationship, and both men know that this overnight camping trip to the Bagby Hot Springs, ostensibly an affirmation of friendship, will be their last.
One of the extraordinary things about Reichardt's direction and the performances by Oldham and London is that we come to understand what's happening in this relationship, though both men are doing their best to deny it. Beneath the prevailing melancholy, there is a frustration that threatens to explode in rage. Thus, when Mark and Kurt playfully shoot at beer cans, handing a gun back and forth, it's more than the history of movies that makes us dread what might happen next. And when Kurt puts his hand on Mark's shoulder as they lie side by side in the hot spring, it's not just reflex homophobia that makes Mark cry out, "What are you doing, man?"
Reichardt's first feature, River of Grass (1994), was an anti-Bonnie and Clyde set in the Florida Everglades, where she grew up. It's about a couple who try to take it on the lam for a crime they wrongly believe they've committed, but who lack the energy and the spare change to get past the first toll booth. The film received enough critical attention to win Reichardt a development deal with Jodie Foster that dragged on fruitlessly for several years. The Hollywood experience, combined with Reichardt's feeling that however successful River of Grass had been, she had felt "shut down" creatively by the scale of the production (though there were only 13 people on the crew), caused her to move away from features and return to the kind of Super 8 experimental filmmaking she had done in art school. For one of these short films, Ode, her friend Oldham wrote the soundtrack, and another friend, Todd Haynes, drew the cover art for the DVD.
"In retrospect," she says, "making these short films with nothing at stake was liberating. So when I heard Jon [Raymond] read his story, I immediately started picturing Will in it. I read Jon's novel The Half Life and asked him to collaborate with me on a screenplay." Because she didn't want the audience to think of Oldham as anything other than the character he plays, Reichardt asked Yo Lo Tengo to write the score. At first, she thought of shooting in the South, but, she explains, "Jon and Todd were friends from Portland, and after Todd moved there from New York, I began visiting him often, and I got interested in the men of Portland and the warmth they have with each other. It really is different from New York men, although as a New York woman I'm a little bit suspicious. In Jon's story, both men are single, so the sexuality is more ambiguous than in the film. But I really didn't want to define it for the audience."
There are a handful of nano-budget filmmakers whose style of production mirrors the stories they tell. Reichardt is one of the best, as is Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha). "It was great to go out in the woods with five crew members, two actors, and a dog," says Reichardt. "No Blackberries, no [assistant directors] watching the clock. We shot with a small Super 16 camera. Everyone said, 'Kelly, we'll give you two weeks.' Since everyone deferred payment, we all own the film together. Not that it ever will pay off. But the whole crew wants to do something with me again."
Also in this Sound Unseen package:
Righteous Babes, Old Joys, Sound Unseen is a nostalgist's toyland by Rob Nelson
My Band Is More Oppressed Than Your Band, Alienation equals authenticity in Sound Unseen's rock docs by Lindsey Thomas
Living Like a Monk, How Minnesota musicians revived '60s rockers the Monks by Peter S. Scholtes