Credit: Janus Films
by Ben Weinstein Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Old Joy | Kelly Reichardt

August 25, 2021

Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy has been on my mind of late, a fact that I initially attributed to some combination of nostalgia for the Pacific Northwest (I used to live in Oregon, where the film is set) and post-graduate blues (the plot concerns two adult friends trying to rekindle the relationship of their college-aged years). I dwelled on it while grocery shopping, at work, as I walked through the recently re-busied streets of my neighborhood, and soon a new hypothesis started taking shape: Old Joy feels so relevant right now not because of individual happenstance, but rather collective experience; namely, the return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy that certain parts of the world spent the summer enjoying. The reality of mid- or post-pandemic life is, of course, hyper-specific. I write as a North American urbanite who retained my job, home, and health throughout quarantine. It’s from this privileged position that I’ve been able to devote so much mental energy to less materially pressing questions, such as How much did my relationships suffer while I was isolated? and To what extent did I lose my ability to socialize?Fifteen years after its release, Old Joy feels like an increasingly prescient and valuable companion as I search for the answers.

The film opens with an economical portrait of domestic discontentment. Mark (Daniel London) meditates in his Portland backyard, doing his best to tune out the noise of passing cars and children playing. This attempted mental escape from the confines of his home life is interrupted by a chance at physical escape in the form of a camping invitation from his friend Kurt (Will Oldham). As Mark posits the idea to his wife Tanya (Tanya Smith), it becomes abundantly clear that the responsibilities of adulthood — not to mention soon-to-be-parenthood — have taken a toll on their marital and social lives. Any antipathy she does feel toward the nascent plan seems borne out of a very valid jealousy, because she, pregnant with child, can’t so easily take off for a night of camping and beer drinking. Which isn’t to say that the trip that comprises the majority of the film is carefree, liberating, or even fun — the outside world merely appears that way when one is effectively trapped inside their home. It’s a feeling I’ve come to know well during quarantine, looking on longingly as other countries eased quarantine restrictions and friends, family, and other loved ones could reunite. Now that the United States has done the same, I see myself in Mark, impulsively embracing social opportunities that provide no guarantee of a good time.

There are two especially difficult facts of Mark’s uneasy reintroduction to extra-domestic socialization. The first: even while one retreats into the confines of the home, the world outside keeps moving and, inevitably, changing. On a very basic level (and one with a tragically high number of mid-pandemic parallels), this is illustrated by the closing of a record store that Mark and Kurt frequented in their younger days: “Syd’s is gone, man… The rent got to be too heavy, now it’s a smoothie place: Rejuiceanation.” The very site at which the pair camp is the shell of a communal space, a ragged couch surrounded by assorted debris of socialization. Less easily discernible, however, is the effect time has on relationships. A couch displays its lack of upkeep; the dissolution of an old friendship may not be so readily apparent. Mark seems unconcerned that he and Kurt might have changed since their younger days, though maybe his desire to escape the home simply supersedes such worries. In any case, we quickly sense that Kurt has remained very much the same, while Mark scarcely resembles his former self.

Which brings us to our second difficult fact: even while one retreats into the confines of the home, they themselves keep changing. Mark is preparing for new parenthood, an especially pronounced lifestyle change; as Kurt puts it, “Having a kid is so fuckin’ for real.” In the process leading up to having a child, we get the sense that Mark and Tanya have abided by practiced steps of adult life: marriage, mortgage, demanding jobs. While Mark likely understands how these factors have impacted his identity, it’s not until he reunites with Kurt — by all appearances single, living out of his van, and unemployed — that he realizes the extent to which he’s not the same person he once was. Kurt acts as a timestamp to measure himself against, and both men feel how asynchronous the results are. “I miss you, Mark,” Kurt finally confides, on the verge of tears. “I miss you really, really bad. I want us to be real friends again. There’s something between us, and I don’t like it.” This formulation makes it sound as though some physical object separates the pair, but while geographic distance certainly factors into it, the distance of time is the more impassable barrier. It’s an idea that seems to gel with Kurt’s theory that “the entire universe is in the shape of a falling tear, dropping down through space” — suggesting that there’s a sadness inherent in the forward march of time. He doesn’t have any numbers to support this idea, but, like so much in Old Joy, there’s a felt truth in what can’t be precisely articulated.

Once the pair reach the secluded Bagby Hot Springs, their physical proximity and temporal distance converge most directly as Kurt gives Mark a back massage. Shot in close-up, the latter is visibly uncomfortable, squirming under the intimacy of his friend’s touch. However, Mark seems to gradually grow more at ease, perhaps even finding something of the meditative calm that eluded him in the beginning of the film. That massage is the closest the two get throughout Old Joy’s runtime — emotionally as well as physically. It’s also a moment of mutual acceptance. Moments before, Kurt relates a lesson he was given in a recent dream: “Sadness is nothing but worn out joy.” As he rubs Mark’s back in silence, we get the sense that they both accept the truth of that statement; their relationship is not (and cannot) be the same as it once was, and whatever sadness they feel because of that is proportional to the joy they once experienced together. Kurt’s advice to “just settle in” — to the massage, but also to the unavoidable changes life brings  — is the last line we hear spoken between them before they arrive back in Portland.

The pair’s goodbye is an abbreviated one: “That was awesome”; “I’ll call you soon.” All that needed to be said was already said, or intuited, in the woods, and Reichardt ends the film with two dovetailing, melancholic portraits. Mark drives through the Portland night, listening to progressive talk radio station Air America (as he does at the beginning of the film, en route to Kurt). The broadcaster is painting a bleak portrait of the many Americans who enter into demanding jobs, only to find that they still don’t provide financial security for their families — to say nothing of deeper fulfillment. As he parks outside his house and looks defeatedly at it through the darkness, it becomes clear that Mark counts himself among their numbers. While he has Tanya to return home to, however, Kurt wanders the streets in search of human connection. He drifts around, looking frantic yet aimless, coming in and out of focus as passing cars obscure him in the frame. The otherwise endearing aloofness that Oldham imbues Kurt with takes on a tragic quality as he yearns helplessly for companionship. In short, both he and Mark are clearly disillusioned by the positions they find themselves in — a feeling accentuated by seeing the direction one another’s lives have taken.

I’m not actually so pessimistic as to posit that our relationships, as a result of the pandemic, will follow the path Mark and Kurt’s does (though some might). Rather, I suspect that watching the reunited pair navigate the impact of time and distance will prove especially resonant during the months, and perhaps years, ahead. Old Joy understands that navigation to be a near-inescapable fact of life; it’s no accident that Mark and Kurt spend much of the film lost in the Oregon woods, and that their acceptance of life’s changes coincides with them finally reaching their hot spring destination. While they get to feel out their relationship in a beautiful PNW forest, I personally anticipate apartments, parks, bars, restaurants, and movie theaters being sites of such social reacclimation. If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it very well might be. As Old Joy makes clear, the process is difficult, but invaluable — not to mention unavoidable. Settle in.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.