Old Joy Review

Based on a story by Jon Raymond and scripted by the author himself along with the director Kelly Reichardt, Old Joy is a small independently produced film that fully exploits the common virtues of short story writing and indie filmmaking. Through a simple situation of two old friends going on a trip into the mountains of Oregon, Portland, it draws out nuances of character and is able to apply them in a deeper and wider context to those caught up in the domestic lifestyle and those living outside it - two worldviews that are becoming increasingly irreconcilable.

For Mark (Daniel London), the weekend trip proposed by his old friend Kurt is an opportunity to recharge his batteries, get away from the pressures of work and consider the implications of the major upheaval that is going to take place in his life with the imminent arrival of his first child. It’s also an opportunity to be reacquainted with an old friend who, although they don’t live very far away apart, seems to be drifting off into a different direction. Kurt (Will Oldman – also known as musician Bonnie “Prince” Billy) doesn’t have the stability of Mark’s life and doesn’t fit into the community in the conventional way – preferring to travel and find an alternative, more natural means of existence. He talks about being offered a job in a restaurant somewhere and having a whole menu worked out, but it is clear that he has no intention of being tied into a job and living in one place.

To some extent then old Joy is a road movie, but it’s not a traditional one, where one or both of the characters undergo a life-changing transformation. Rather, for better or worse, the simple experience of being together allows both men to gain a clearer understanding of their own position in relation to each other and the wider world. Not that such knowledge will make the path they have to travel any easier to follow.

What also further distinguishes Old Joy from a rather more conventional depiction of men of a certain age undergoing a lifestyle crisis, is the film’s way of showing rather than telling. Mark’s journey to pick up Kurt is accompanied by a talk-radio station discussing the current political economic problems in America, all the things that are relevant to someone like Mark whose lifestyle is inextricably caught up in such matters. When he picks up Kurt and they head out into the mountains, the radio is clicked off and the sounds of nature take over, those natural sounds and rhythms aided by a rootsy score by Yo La Tengo. Without either man having to explain their current circumstances and concerns or their past history, the underlying cause of their initial discomfort is expressed by the unmarked and un-signposted roads they get lost upon and their differences reflected in how they interact - Mark’s reliance on his mobile phone to keep in touch with his wife, Kurt through a series of simple anecdotes that express his vulnerability. Neither man is entirely happy about their own lives, but they are not put at ease by the alternatives they see in the other person.

The film also makes no judgement on the men other than to show the reality of those too caught up in conventional lifestyle and also of those who live outside it. There is no easy means of accommodation between them it would seem, even though the two men share a brief moment of detachment from it when they finally arrive at the hot springs they have been looking for. Alas, even that brief moment of optimism that Old Joy offers would seem to be illusory in the real world, the final line of the film’s credits offering the disclaimer that “Bagby Hot Springs does not allow nudity or alcohol”. In a film where simple low-key concerns are shown to have wider implications, the irony is not lost.

Old Joy is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

In the main the transfer is more than adequate, though the technical specs here are slightly lacking. While there would appear to have been some compromise in the transfer of Old Joy, the image is certainly clear and sharp, free from any marks barring the occasional rare white speck. Filmed on Super 16, there is a slight softness, but the colours hold up well, conveying the essential tones of the film. A relatively short movie, a single-layer disc should be more than adequate here, the transfer and another short half-hour film occupying a full 5.04 GB. However in addition to being non-anamorphic there are a few other problems with the transfer. The aspect ratio is 1.75:1, rather than the expected 1.66:1, but this wouldn’t appear to affect the compositions greatly – but the transfer is also interlaced, meaning that there is quite noticeable blurring on camera pans and movement. This will certainly be more apparent on a progressive display, but was also evident on a CRT television screen. Times seem to be tough for small independent distributors and when we are increasingly seeing more barebones, non-anamorphic transfers at least the quality of the film has not been greatly compromised here.

There are no problems with the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track, which presents the dialogue relatively strongly – although a few words here and there can seem a little indistinct. The music score from Yo La Tengo also fares well in the mix.

The film is in English, but there are no captions or subtitles for the hard of hearing.

Short Film: Slitch (23:11) by Dianne Bellino is a rather experimental and low-budget graduation film in the manner of Me, You And Everyone We Know, and seems to be included on this release for the appearance of Will Oldham as a surfer geek. Oldman also contributes the music to the soundtrack. The original Trailer (2:19) for Old Joy is presented letterboxed at 1.78:1 and sets up the film in a beautiful and intriguing manner. Other than the Soda Trailer Reel, the only other extra feature is a Poster Gallery which contains 4 concept designs and the final poster.

Old Joy is a beautiful little film that should appeal to anyone who has been intrigued by the studies of masculinity and relationships depicted recently in films like Sideways and Brokeback Mountain. As is often the case with friendships between two males, very little is expressed directly, and Old Joy is probably more allusive than most in this respect, but the film is no less richly rewarding in how it suggests and delicately explores the social difficulties of maintaining male relationships. Soda Pictures’ UK Region 2 DVD release is lacking the anamorphic transfer that would once have been regarded as a minimum requirement, but the quality of this marvellous film is otherwise not greatly compromised.

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