Ten reasons to see Old Joy at the Vancity (that's the official site; details here), in no particular order:
1. This is the third time I’ve reviewed it (first was for Discorder, before the film festival; next was on my blog, when it played the fest.) Any film I recommend THREE TIMES in writing has got to have something to it. (As of tonight, I’ve actually seen it four times, and plan to see it again on Sunday).
2. The film is a two men and a doggy film. The doggy, Lucy, actually gets third billing, after the two men and before the other people. Her name really is Lucy, so onscreen, when the credits roll, it reads, “Lucy.........Herself.” The dog doesn’t do anything in the movie but be a dog, following two friends on a camping venture, and that’s remarkable enough, that the dog is a dog and the landscape is the landscape and that almost nothing in this film STANDS for anything. No: being a dog is important enough, and sometimes the camera spends time on her to acknowledge that. You get to like her, and get to know a bit about what kind of dog she is, and you like that the film thinks she’s important enough to give her a minute. Or two. Or three. A dog could probably enjoy watching this movie alongside its owners, if they let dogs in theatres. The shots outside the car window of the landscape passing – what dog doesn’t stick its head out and watch?
3. And, oh, the landscape is lovely – similar to that of BC, and filmed in such a way that you both feel despair and pain at the ugliness of it, when it’s ugly (the suburbs), and an aching joyous desire and awe and wonder at the beauty of it, when it’s beautiful ( the forest - tho’ very little of the forest is shown without some trace of human presence – garbage, roads, wires. There's a reason why that is). And the experience of going from the suburbs to the forest - the feelings you have en route - and the reasons for doing it– they’re in this film, they’re central. When did you last see a film centered around something so real? The film does for you exactly what it does for the characters in it. It has a deep, deep integrity.
4. I’m not sure what role Yo La Tengo played in scoring the film, compared to Smokey Hormel, who also gets credit, but the music is – well, look: frankly it reminds me of Jerry Garcia’s guitar solo in Zabriskie Point, and say what you will, I think that’s one of the most lovely uses of music in a film score ever. Or, well, think of Wim Wenders’ soundtrack to Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road). Damn, was a CD ever released of that? (Holy shit! YES THERE IS!) Is there a score for Old Joy? More stuff I wanna buy: damn. In any event, the beauty of the music and the beauty of the landscape and how it is photographed go together perfectly. If I have a complaint about the film, the contrast the music sets with the talk radio stuff in the suburban scenes is a little obvious, formally, but only after you see the film twice. And then you stop noticing the fact of it, which is momentarily a bit distracting, and start paying attention to how it interacts with the film thematically. Then it’s okay again.
5. There are observations made that express quiet and real truths, sometimes painful, and sometimes simply just sweetly familiar, about the life we now lead, that we often don’t stop to consider, but will resonate with you, reminding you of things that you have considered and maybe not dwelled on that much. The way that sometimes a perfectly obvious thing suddenly becomes profound and revelatory and surprising when you really start to think about what it means - when you’ve been smoking pot, say. This is fitting, because many of these observations are issued through the mouth of the film’s aging pothead main character, Kurt, played so perfectly by Will Oldham that I kinda want to talk to him and find out if he smokes a lot of pot himself (cf the “liner notes” to Superwolf, my favourite of his albums). He may well. Some of these observations include: “You can’t get real quiet anymore.” Or that the forest and the city aren’t as different as they used to be: now there are trees in the city and there’s garbage in the forest. The sort of thing you don’t notice so often unless maybe you're high, but that really rings true. At some point, his monologues become utter poetry, as they play against the rest of the film - when viewed from the right angle. You notice how I’m not going to tell you them here.
6. And the thing about it: you won’t even identify with Kurt, probably. I mean, people like Kurt would probably like this film – because it’s Kurt’s film in many ways; the film gives the Kurts of this world their due, sadly aware that they’re being beaten into marginalization and isolation and shame – in North America, anyhow. So much so that it’s far more likely that your life will resemble that of Mark, the other main character, because there are a lot more of him around. I certainly can identify with him more than Kurt. And I can tell you, even though he maybe doesn’t know it himself, Mark needs Kurt. He needs the trip that he and Kurt go on far more than Kurt does. Kurt is the man who gives something away in this film; Kurt is the one who stands to lose. What Mark stands to lose, he’s already almost lost, which is, perhaps, his problem. And though Kurt would sure like things from Mark that he doesn't really get, he doesn't, ultimately, begrudge him. We see him struggling. We get closer to him than we might be comfortable with, even – particularly if we hold our own personal Kurts at arm’s distance, since he’ll likely remind you of someone you’ve known... but we have to acknowledge him. This one’s for Kurt.
7. And though the landscape is the landscape and the dog is the dog, Kurt is not just Kurt. He represents the dreams of a different, more innocent, more poetic and passionate time, that allowed people like him briefly to have a toehold in the culture. He’s somewhat of the last gasp of the 1960s. Or something like that. I think the title of the film ties in with this...
8. And that’s why Old Joy almost seems almost like a ritual, to me; like a church service aimed to impart something to it's congregation that might just be needed. It’s a movie, that, like Kurt, sees how tense and worried and hung up we all are, and is briefly, quietly generous to us, asking very, very little for itself. It thought about its audience with tears in its eyes, and about how it was almost too late to give us anything at all, and then it made up its mind. And we’ll receive it, if we have the capacity to meet it, to see the film with an open heart, and we might not even notice that we've received it, but it'll be good for us. Which makes it a pretty moral film experience, really. I can’t recall the last time I’ve described a film as “moral.”
9. And the best reason to see it at least once is because then you’ll have the option of seeing it again. In my opinion, like a piece of great poetry or a supremely evocative short story – or a beautiful piece of music – the film is bottomless and rewarding, even moreso each time you see it. With great simplicity of form, it achieves amazing depth.
10. Finally, it’s paired this week with Andrew Bujalski’s terrific little film, Mutual Appreciation, which I also loved, but don’t need to say anything about. The less I say, the better off you’ll be. I think Mutual Appreciation would be better seen second, on a double bill, frankly - it's less subtle, less quiet: better to work up to it than try to come down off it to tune into Old Joy.
Old Joy is the finest piece of American cinema I have seen in years.