By Sean Axmaker
There's an introduction that puts an unexpected burden on an interview. "I promised myself that by Christmas I could stop," explains Kelly Reichardt at the beginning of our phone interview, conducted back in December. She laughs and continues: "I ran out of things to say about the film a long time ago. But woo-hoo, here we go."
Old Joy is Reichardt's second feature (the anti-road movie River of Grass came out in 1994) and my favorite American film of 2006. The first time I saw it, I was drawn in by the easy way the film captured the rhythms of two old friends - father-to-be Mark (Daniel London) and free spirit Kurt (Will Oldham) - on a weekend jaunt to a hot springs hidden in the Oregon Cascades.
I'm a former Oregonian myself, and I spent countless hours on daytripping road trips with my best friends, wandering back highways winding through the forests of the Oregon Cascades, back in the day. The film brought back my memory of the ephemeral pleasure of the company of old friends, and I watched these two easing back to an earlier time in their lives and easing into the tone and mood of a road trip where timetables and deadlines were gone and the passing of time embraced. My connection to the film was personal and visceral in many ways - Reichardt's photography captures the light and color and atmosphere of a foggy morning or a crisp day in the Oregon woods better than any film I have ever seen.
On my second viewing, I saw more clearly the chasm between them, the years of drifting apart and settling in to lives incompatible with one another. The personal dynamics shift from moment to moment and Reichardt brilliantly and beautifully captures those moments with lucid simplicity. A misspoken word casts a chill over a conversation, a charged look, a stiffening of body language, and then that space between them dissolves as they let go of their baggage and forget the rest of the world under the soothing spell of a lazy road trip. If for only a few seconds.
Old Joy placed in the top 10 films of IndieWire's year-end poll and the top 20 of LA Weekly's poll, but otherwise has been largely neglected by the mainstream press more interested in high concepts, big stars, and easy-to-explain stories than subtlety and nuance and uncomfortable intimacy. Here's hoping the DVD release brings the film the attention it deserves. As for Kelly Reichardt, she's moving on to her next project. "It's been a long road because when I hang up the phone with you, my Old Joy work is done. Supposedly." Hopefully it won't take another 12 years.
Why did you choose Oregon as the location for Old Joy?
That's where the story was written. Jon Raymond, the writer of the short story, is from Oregon and I've been spending a lot of time out there over the past year since Todd Haynes moved out there. He's a friend. So I shot a short film out there and was just drawn to the place, and Jon's short story was written for Bagby Hot Springs [in the Mount Hood National Forest, outside of Portland]. I did drive around the country, looking at other places, but it was hard to find anything to match that kind of beauty that's out there. Also, we were looking for the liberal stronghold kind of theme for the story.
That Left Coast sort of thing. I certainly feel that in Portland. Is that why you put the Air America broadcast at the beginning and the end of the film?
Yeah. I wanted to place it very much in this moment in time and I wasn't sure how long Air America would last. True enough, it seems to be in trouble. I thought it worked for Mark's character, that he would be one of those people that would drown out his own thoughts with easy-to-feel-righteous, lefty talk radio.
It also has a tonal effect. After coming back from the woods and the hot springs, you come back and it's just this white noise that suddenly intrudes upon the peace that he spent in that whole weekend.
Absolutely. Yeah. Don't write about the ending.
I won't. But I don't know that this is one of those films that you can really spoil by the ending.
Yeah, well, I do think that there is some tension at the tubs by not knowing what the ending will be.
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