After 10 days’ worth of blogs, dispatches and emails home to friends and loved ones, I’m prettyfed up with finding clever ways to explain that I’m in Holland. So, simply: I’m working at the International Film Festival Rotterdam as a “Trainee” —that is, a working critic under 30 years of age who needs deep-pocketed Europeans to pay his way abroad.
My main responsibility has been advising the FIPRESCI jury in selecting the winner of the International Critics’ Prize. I can’t discuss the as-of-right-now embargoed results. But I can write about the films I’ve seen here, the best of which, surely, is American director Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.
I have not read the novel, by John Raymond, upon which the film is based, nor have I seen Reichardt’s first feature, River of Grass. And yet after watching this film, I have a strong sense of both as artists. Raymond’s story is about two men, Mark (Daniel London), and Kurt (Will Oldham) who embark on a weekend hiking trip in Oregon’s Cascade mountains. Mark is a father-to-be who looks vaguely uncomfortable in his skin and blasts Air America on his car radio; Kurt, who looks several years older, has a wildman beard and appears to be unemployed. They might be stock figures (the sell-out and the wizened hippie); they’re not.
Another critic has already written that he fears discussing Old Joy for fear of overwhelming through his expressions of admiration. He’s right. It is a whisper of a film, suggestive without being declarative. There is definitely something here about the back-to-the-wall anxieties circulating amongst American liberals, and some savvy film editor may commission a piece comparing and contrasting it with Brokeback mountain. There’s something to both of these readings (I’ve tried each of them out myself) but Old Joy, whatever its deeper implications, works first and foremost as a film about our slippery grasp of love. Reichardt’s carefully, beautifully modulated direction demands adjectives that will be boring for you to read — “subtle,” “patient,” and “meditative,” all apply here — but as with the film’s themes, any analysis of its aesthetic feels a bit like a bludgeon. I can only sum up my initial feelings by quoting one line of the screenplay: at one point during their weekend together, Mark and Kurt have a discussion about the latter’s night-school foray into the world of theoretical physics.
Kurt, who talks a lot more than Mark does, says that he rejected the ideas he was being taught — that he had his own theory, of a “tear-shaped universe.” Old Joy is a film which describes exactly this realm. It’s one of the most startling and genuinely poetic American films in recent memory.