Old Joy

Kelly Reichardt's film Old Joy (2006) finally made it down here to Durham, so I went to see it at what's quickly become one of my favorite places to catch movies, the Carolina Theater. In fact, I went to see it twice, partly to soak in the rich visual textures of Reichardt's film, with its close-up shots of birds on telephone wires, rooftops and forest branches, its landscape pans of urban and rural Oregon taken from a moving car, and its patient portraiture of the Oregon woods, which allows the viewer to gradually sink into the entrancing layers of brown and green of the forest the two protagonists hike through.

Being a fan of Will Oldham's music, his role in the film is what first got me interested in the project when I read about it months ago. But really, the entire film is fantastic, from the script to the cinematography to the dog that accompanies two old friends on a brief camping trip to some hot springs in rural Oregon. The dialogue is minimal, and what little of it there is remains relatively casual, thus avoiding any sense of pretension in trying to make a major narrative statement. And yet, I viewed this movie through my autobiographical concern with my own generation, those of us born in the late 60s/early 70s ("Generation X," though I feel ambiguous about that term), so I read it as making major statements about two topics: the aging of people in their mid-30s into some type of adulthood (or a refusal of this process) and the psychic effects of the endless "war on terror" in which the United States has become disastrously entangled.

What I mean by the first topic is that I found myself identifying very much with both protagonists as they struggled to make sense of a friendship rooted in shared memories but moving quickly into the complications of "adulthood,"whatever that might entail. (I'm not too sure adulthood is relative to growing old, as the childishness and petulancy of "leaders" such as Bush or Chávez makes quite clear.) Both protagonists are in their 30s and finding their sense of mental or physical freedom being diminished. I don't think this is the case for everyone in "my generation." But I do think it is for many of us who lived our lives according to utopian or "alternative" ideals in the 80s and 90s. Plus, aging always reveals one's limitations, regardless of the political and social landscape. The landscape of the world today is undeniably more bleak and dangerous than anything we've encountered before in our relatively short lives.

That sense of danger brings us to the second major topic of Old Joy, which seems to be how individuals cope with the knowledge that they're living in a time of war. And yet, that war is quite specific to the United States after 9/11, when Bush has led a misguided and illegal assault on individual liberties, not to mention his tactically-flawed and incompetent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The film opens and closes with scenes of Daniel London's character driving alone in his car listening to talk radio (from Air America), where the economic and psychic influences of the post-9/11 landscape are being discussed. These topics are never addressed by any of the characters in the film, lending more weight to the sense of powerlessness many of us feel today, in regards to the growing violence of the world. (And I should clarify that I don't think the U.S. government is alone in its recklessness and idiocy. Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Russia, England, Bolivia and a host of other nations seem perfectly willing to pursue policies that endanger not just their own citizens but the entire planet.) As the two friends return to the city, after visiting the hot springs, they drive through a central avenue covered with neon billboards and storefronts all lit up in the night. One of the largest signs that floats by them reads: BAGDAD. A vivid reminder of that absurd war that most Americans (including perhaps the two protagonists) seem intent on ignoring in their daily lives.

Utopian ideals obviously don't belong to any single generation. They are often the province of youth in all eras. And among Generation X, there were many who never subscribed to notions of personal and planetary liberation or transcendence. But my impression of the late 80s and early 90s, as I lived them, is that there were also many of us who rejected reality as it was being marketed. We tried to transform it in some manner, through art, literature, music, fashion or politics. I now feel like I understand what John Lennon meant when he sang: "The dream is over, what can I say." Or, as Will Oldham's character recounts hearing in a dream he had: "Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy."

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