The film withholds memory and history from us, always knowing more than us, plot-wise, but inviting and compelling our projection of how we fill the space of our own friendships. In every frame, someone loves more, and variously; in every frame, someone is remembering or forgetting; in every frame, someone is grateful or guilty, someone is telling the truth or concealing it. It’s for the friends to decide consciously or subconsciously whether the gain is worth the work.
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I recently taught Kelly Reichardt’s film Old Joy, and I learned far more than I’d taught. I’m accustomed to leading vibrant class discussions in which college students make discoveries, think passionately, raise hands enthusiastically. Yet this film more than any other resulted in a palpable dampening of my students’ spirits, as we searched each other’s faces and tried to reconcile conflicting ideas about the film’s muted evocation of a friendship as it ages. People grew quieter and more sullen instead of active and energetic. As I stood before my class and posed questions and threaded contributions, I felt a sinking feeling, “what am I doing wrong?” Class came to a close; students submitted their papers, and then something fascinating happened. A trail of students, more than usual, began to form around the screen; these students and I talked together, each with a startling realization they’d felt finally emerging in the last minutes of class, without time enough to share it in our actual conversation.
When I teach Rear Window and Citizen Kane, students light up and discussion takes flight; in that class with Old Joy, they strangely grew quieter, as if questioning the very things they began class feeling confident about. I might attribute this quietness to many factors: the wrong questions on my part; or a sadness for the characters, an indifference to the film, a wistfulness for friendships in their past and present; maybe a startling realization for these students, dawning, that they’re living the very times toward which these adult men look back with nostalgia. As my students revealed to me after class, something about the compounding impact of all these questions unsettled their prior claims to knowledge. With time, I realized more about how this film works on our own memories and hope, in ways that make us want to express the nature of this possibility. What makes Old Joy challenging is that it calls us on how we live our lives knowing who we are by who we are not.
As the film’s critics celebrate, Old Joy calls us to a new kind of spectatorship that listens and watches, that makes us aware of how we project ourselves onto characters or in situations. Reviewers also are quick to note the political subtext of the film, as a character listens to a call-in Air America show about how to restore civil rights and move forward in a progressive America. Reichardt herself connects this subtext with the film’s title and the political moment (of 2006): “I think people my age have the feeling now that any kind of idealism … has been shot to hell.… Old Joy has a feeling of my generation at a total loss.”1 Yet Manohla Dargis (New York Times) reads the film more redemptively, claiming that “Reichardt answers the deep current of sorrow that runs through the film and the lingering sense of regret that hangs over the men with one pristinely framed image after another … she offers up a world of enchantments that … create a counter-narrative to despair.”2
Reviewers generally celebrate the film’s accomplishments; some disavow what they call “listless movies” but celebrate how Old Joy overcomes these critiques; some appreciate the quiet and slow amidst a world of noise and speed; some champion the gentleness and subtlety in a time of blockbuster heroics. Critics privilege the film as exploring nature and culture, friendship and road movies, individualism and community. Where people disagree is whether this film conjures hope or despair, whether change happens or not, whether this film offers possibility or doom and decay. One reviewer (Dargis) sees the closure as “alive to the world,” that a character “hasn’t given up on it, and neither has [Reichardt].” But other reviewers feel confidently different: “what this threadbare narrative really underscores is the unspoken impossibility of their reconnection,” claims Gus van Sant, in an interview with Bomb.
I want further to cast this film within a broader context of friendship, aging, change, and memory. Poet J. D. McClatchy writes, “Is there such a thing as unrequited/Friendship? I doubt it. Even what’s about/The house, as ordinary, as humble as habit – The mutt, the t.v., the rusted window tray/Of African violets in their tinfoil ruffs – Returns our affection with a loyalty/Two parts pluck and the third a bright instinct/To please … Friends are fables of our loneliness/If love would live for hope, friendship thrives/On memory.”3
“Friendship thrives/On memory,” writes McClatchy, and I wonder, then, just what this means, even as I can speculate. Aristotle names three kinds of friendship: of utility, of pleasure, and of virtue. Of these three modes, two are deficient, in his estimation: utility and pleasure do not entail both parties desiring the good qua good for each other. Only the friendship of virtue involves sharing in a common project, a mutual enlarging of each other’s moral experience, claim Aristotle and his centuries of readers. Yet what Aristotle couldn’t have imagined, or didn’t quite account for, are the ways in which our understanding of friendship, of responsibility, of intimacy becomes intensified and complicated with speed, film, smart phones, and longer lives. How does a friendship change and age, especially as time accelerates and screens rise up between us, both revealing and concealing each other, both creating and collapsing distances? And if we find ourselves in the “deficient” friendship of utility or pleasure, what to do? Work toward making it virtuous, or give up, and how?
We all have friends who know us, who knew us, at a time in our lives when nobody else quite did. We all have friends who share secrets with us, just as we do with them. There are pasts to which only we are privy, these worlds that together we make and hold. We keep each other alive in our memories and our stories. Yet we also cannot keep up, cannot have time with, cannot always know what to say in, the conversations, as time passes and communities grow and responsibilities change. We will never again be children, in age, and know without a kind of self-consciousness and joy and gratitude how it feels simply to enjoy companionship, summer play, exploring the woods together, making discoveries, growing tired, or not.
Essayist Emily Mitchell describes the pain and distance from an old friendship, from which she’s since grown apart, and then offers the following:
what I remember most vividly when I think of him is none of that. It is a trip we took together in the year before we graduated from college. We went to France, where it was already spring, coming from New England where it was still cold and dark and snowbound. I remember that we took the train into the city from De Gaulle and emerged into the Jardin du Luxembourg, into sunshine and green. I remember that we put our backpacks down on the grass and ran around in circles, waving our arms and laughing madly from the pure pleasure of being together in a place that beautiful.4
Mitchell closes her painful memory with a lost friend by remembering their bright joy, and in so doing invites a reader’s own reflection on what, too, we keep, on what have been our own equivalents of “the pure pleasure of being together in a place that beautiful.”
In this film, however, there is no flashback, no montage, no France, no clarification of why or how these friends became close. The film withholds memory and history from us, always knowing more than us, plot-wise, but inviting and compelling our projection of how we fill the space of our own friendships. In every frame, someone loves more, and variously; in every frame, someone is remembering or forgetting; in every frame, someone is grateful or guilty, someone is telling the truth or concealing it. It’s for the friends to decide consciously or subconsciously whether the gain is worth the work. If you are the one who gives more, how not to be disappointed or resentful. If you’re the one who takes, how not to feel guilty, or how to make the call, write the letter, hold the look, offer the embrace, and to what end? Maybe it’s that we don’t want to acknowledge or even suggest the small ways that people disappoint us, the ways that friendship consists of the compounding gestures of affection, intimacy, disappointment, companionship, and concern, over time.
In Agnès Varda’s Opera Mouffe: Diary of a Pregnant Woman (1958), the camera offers us a glimpse of how and what a woman sees: elderly passers-by looking into the lens, children racing and playing with masks, new lovers finding time together. The short 16-minute essay film is structured by categories such as “on desire” and “dearly departed” and “on anxiety,” all sections that together comprise the woman’s “diary.” Despite its origination in short story form, I want to think about Old Joy as an essay film, a meditation on how to imagine the past, how to regard one’s history of love – platonic, romantic, sexual – in light of commitments to a future. I want to think of Old Joy as an essay film that thinks about and that asks us to think about how to regard a friendship’s changing over time.
Maybe because I’ve lately been studying my own family pictures, but I’ve recently come to regard Old Joy as way of seeing through the film to the younger men who Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) once were. The film style invites it, sometimes showing Kurt in a tight framing that hides his widening forehead, or a flattering frontal light that softens their facial lines into a smoother boyish youth. I think of Old Joy as a documentary of two men who once had more of their lives ahead of them, about aging as Mark prepares to become a father. I see these men look at each other, in wonderment to see through their present moment a memory of who their friend used to be.
They’re such boys, after all, such grown-up boys. I look at my sons and sometimes glimpse who they’ll become; sometimes think “there it is, a trace of an older boy, passing over his features.” And in reverse, too, the sudden making-young that a trick of light enables upon an adult. We all have experienced versions of this, an imaginative aging-in-reverse of a stranger or loved one before us, suddenly clear as once having been smoother-faced, thicker-haired, with such less knowing in their eyes. In his essay on Proust, Walter Benjamin claims that aging happens not from too much living – from too many years – but from encounters with what exceeds our capacity to behold. In other words, every wrinkle or age spot or sunken fold of skin or grey hair conveys an encounter with more than we can process; we age from an accumulation not of years but of sensation. We age by encountering the possible lives, what we couldn’t have known, what exceeds us, claims Benjamin.
What I love about Old Joy is its invitation to think about change and aging as we perceive it within relationships. Writing this essay, I have thought about my own history of friendships. For every claim that I’ve here made, I have pictured a face, remembered a moment, sometimes joyfully, sometimes guiltily, in my own past. My fuller and truer account of this film would include not only detailed scene analyses but also footnotes, crediting my friends, for teaching me everything that helps me to read this film accordingly. Old Joy thus functions as an essay film, an invitation to fill the quietness with our own memories of who we are to each other, of people we’ve lost and grown away from, of those with whom we want to stay close, of conversations we keep having or trying to have, of all the ways in which we’ve reached out to each other and taken a chance on intimacy. And that’s the miracle of this film, its own creation of intimacy with us. I watch Old Joy now and think about how people connect, about what breaks them apart, how telephones and gestures and shared experiences and met gazes yield intimacy. Especially salient in 2019, Old Joy offers a last gasp of a world without smart phones; as these characters reflect on the hybridity of forest and city, they’re also dramatizing what makes it hard to be together and hard to not be. In my own memories of this film, I actually had pictured – faultily – a story that one character tells as having actually happened as a plot event in the film. which is to say that this film lets the character’s interiors become ours, not via point-of-view shot or flashback but via surfaces onto which we can imagine our own senses taking flight.
Ever emphasizing the possibility and variability of interpretation, Reichardt claims that “Old Joy can stand for everything.”5 Even as her interviews and statements regarding her films are astonishingly revealing, she nonetheless resists specifying what her works mean. “I’m really going out of my way to not point anybody in one specific direction. I don’t really want to sum up the scenes for anybody. I’m hoping there’s enough space in it that you could walk out of it and feel differently than the person sitting next to you.”6 Reichardt states that “I feel differently about things that happen in Old Joy depending on how I’m feeling that day.”7 In this brief essay, I have tried not to force a reading but only to give shape to this openness, to invite possibility. I urge you to screen or rewatch the film, and to heed the imperative of Henry James, “be one on whom nothing is lost.” Every prop, gesture, clothing change, bird, doorframe, breeze, spark, word, smile, cooler, sleeping bag, beer cozy yields powerful resonance, an almost Hitchcockian fixation on detail, though without the generic expectation of cause and effect.
In a lone critique of Old Joy, Andrew Sarris pans the film. He writes , “Let us say simply that Ms. Reichardt’s brand of minimalism leaves me truly joyless.” Sarris’s clever play on the film’s title neglects the first word. The film’s title promises not “joy” but old joy, foregrounding age and time alongside this emotion, which – as Zadie Smith beautifully illustrates in her essay “Joy” – entails great life-defining intensity, the loss of which proves crushing; “joy,” an emotion far more complex than mere pleasure. Even as I appreciate Sarris’s assessment of his own “joyless” state post-screening, I yet want to remind that the couplet of joy and age knows a long history of tender balance, such as in Dante’s haunting claim, by Francesca, in The Divine Comedy, “No greater grief than to remember days/Of joy, when misery is at hand”; and Alvin of The Straight Story, “the worst part of being old is remembering when you was young.”8
After watching Old Joy, we might not feel joy-filled but nonetheless will have traveled and returned, from a camping trip to home, from here to there, from this moment in anticipation to that point of reflection on what we’ve observed. By that point, we will all be 76 minutes older, and we can look back on this point of our relative youth and know more about whether our hopes were realized.
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Thanks to Michael Lee and the University of Oklahoma, where I presented an earlier version of this piece as part of the Presidential Dream Course, “The Films of Kelly Reichardt.” All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD.
- Michael Joshua Rowin, “Q&A: Kelly Reichardt, Director of Old Joy,” Stop Smiling Online, 22 September 2006, https://www.stopsmilingonline.com/story_detail.php?id=655) [↩]
- Manohla Dargis, “A Journey through Forests and a Sense of Regret,” The New York Times, 20 September 2006 https://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/20/movies/20joy.html [↩]
- J. D. McClatchy, “An Essay on Friendship,” Poetry, February 1990 [↩]
- Emily Mitchell, “On Friendship,” New England Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, 2010 [↩]
- Rowin. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- James Ponsoldt, “Sound of Silence,” Filmmaker Magazine, Fall 2006 https://filmmakermagazine.com/archives/issues/fall2006/features/sound_silence.php [↩]
- Thanks to Paul Cantrell for this introduction to Dante. [↩]