Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Film Review #104: Old Joy
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Daniel London, Will Oldham, Tanya Smith

It’s such a classic American moment, when the whole sky suddenly opens up with promise and possibility. Midway, this overnight road trip seems to take a turn for the better for past roommates Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (musician Will Oldham, a.k.a. Chicago-based Bonnie Prince Billy). After an unspecified separation they’ve headed, at Kurt’s sudden suggestion, out of Portland for Oregon’s Cascade Mountains – to Bagby Hot Springs in the Mt. Hood National Forest, specifically, a pristine spot nestled in old-growth cedar and Douglas fir, a mile-plus hike in.

The old easy familiarity and fit aren’t there. Kurt hears about Mark’s ill father, makes a careless remark about Eskimos going off to die on the tundra, and Mark shoots him a look of startled discomfort. When Kurt gets them lost, they camp in what looks like a dump. Starting over next morning, they get directions from the waitress at a crossroads diner. Now, they find that arrow toward the trail, Mark’s Volvo wagon veers and suddenly the windshield framing them – it’s gotten cramped inside – flashes and reflects that enormous blue sky with its white piles of clouds backlit in gold.

This perfectly timed, breath-taking shot captures visually what may be the trip’s best, most fleeting moment – even though their hike into deep woods, their hot soak with its lingering, sexually ambiguous stillness, and their silent walk back to the road are all ahead. New York City-based writer/director Kelly Reichardt used a similar sky-in-the-windshield shot in her first feature film, River of Grass (1994), another road trip movie that’s found in the cult section of rental shops.

An astute tale of aspiring North Miami crooks, River of Grass holds its own with classics of its type like Terence Malick’s Badlands and Robert Altman’s Kansas City. The moonlit swimming pool scene is priceless, when Cozy (Lisa Bowman) does her idea of a seductive dive and water ballet for Lee’s benefit as he fondles a pistol. “I just had the urge to go out,” she shrugs about leaving her two toddlers. Indie horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden plays Lee (his The Last Winter, with Central New Yorker Joanne Shenandoah, is out in September). Mocked by superhighways all around them, Cozy’s moment of truth – as the sky hits the windshield – occurs when they haven’t a quarter between them to pay the toll out of town.

River of Grass and Old Joy are first cousins. Cozy and Lee’s frustration and malaise – for them, clueless isolation in tension with their media-inspired “crime spree” – show up on the opposite corner of the country among an altogether different social strata in Old Joy. The nervous, jazzy drum score of after-hours Miami dives emerges in Portland as the New Jersey trio Yo La Tengo’s smokier strings. When Mark and Kurt drive home to their liberal stronghold, they pass the landmark Bagdad Theater in the heart of the hip Hawthorne arts district. More than a nod to Portland’s vibrant film community – local indie filmmaker/PDX festival founder Matt McCormick and video artist Tanya Smith have bit parts, and Reichardt’s old friend Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), who now lives there, executive-produced – this signals both art’s alternative to war and a pervasive angst among the thirty-somethings now too old to be living out of vans.

Lee and Cozy seem stuck in a hazy time warp, but this last presidential election tightly book-ends Old Joy’s leisurely walk in the woods. A John Kerry poster adorns Kurt’s porch window. Mark spends his drive time with “Air Radio,” listening to rants about the last Voting Rights Law and economic uncertainty, as if – says Reichardt on the commentary track – just listening to activist radio were enough. It’s hard to watch them both – Kurt still cadging his way through life, Mark still saying things like, “It allows me to feel about carpentry in a way I haven’t in a long time.”

In the inconclusive end, Kurt goes back out immediately after Mark drops him off. He denies a homeless vet spare change, then thinks better of it. Restless, he searches the street for something unspecified – dope? sex? – and just steps out of the frame.

The unsettling, deceptively simple Old Joy results from collaboration between Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond. His story “Old Joy” appeared in earlier form in the 2004 book of the same title by photographer Justine Kurland, known for her photo series of teen-aged girls as runaways and post-hippie era commune members posed naked in wilderness landscapes. Now, Reichardt and Raymond are at work on the script for another road trip movie, entitled Train Choir, no doubt with another flash of truth.

This review appears in the 5/31/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not appear theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.