“It’s all one huge thing now, there’s trees in the city and garbage in the forest. What’s the big difference?”
When we consider the world we inhabit now, connected, omniscient and full of distraction, the title of Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film becomes a sad reminder of what was, never to come again. Just what is the titular ‘joy’, now a thing of memory, around which Reichardt constructs a beautiful ode to the Pacific Northwest?
For Kurt and Mark, the close friends at the heart of Old Joy’s sparse plot, it’s a nostalgia for their youth that has grown dark and mossy like the Northwest foothills, something they look back on with a half-smile but accept has been replaced with the burden of marriage, family and unavoidable maturation. Reichardt’s meditative return to the woods speaks back not to the likes of Thoreau, for intellect and lofty philosophy is not in the vocabulary men like Kurt and Mark. Instead, it speaks back to a time when camping in the mountains with your closest friends became its own private ritual, and the light of the campfires became a votive elegy.
Kurt, played by the folk artist Will Oldham (known to most as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie), is a drifter who lives in an unkempt, simple house not far from his closest friend Mark (Daniel London). While Mark prepares for his impending fatherhood, a metaphorical sealing off of the vault where his salad days reside, Kurt still lives as a Peter Pan of the hippie movement, hanging onto the moral and social freedoms associated with it, realising that as Mark matures their their youthful common ground will be lost. He invites Mark for a weekend of camping up in the Cascades, a tradition to them as old as time, and the pair head into the ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ for a contemplation of where they are now, as both friends and as adults in a world visibly and spiritually apart from what they used to know.
Reichardt’s film plays out as part road-movie and part minimalist character study, with gorgeous cinematography care of Peter Sillen capturing the sea of pines and serpentine mountain roads that are the calling cards of Cascadia. Accompanied by Reichardt’s own dog Lucy, Kurt and Mark embark of a journey of nostalgia through the contemporary frontier, in search of a secluded hot springs that Kurt has previously visited.
Accompanying their trip is a gorgeously pared down soundtrack by lo-fi, indie-rock artists Yo La Tengo whose down-tempo guitar picking and ambient soundscape feels as verdant and nostalgic as the wooded mountain ranges. Ultimately, this is a film about temporariness and a desperate but futile endeavour to stay the waters of time. Like the secluded hot springs they seek out, time continues to flow past the ankles of Kurt and Mark with no care for who they once were or where they are going. It will run forever, a reminder that the rivers of age can only be forded so many times before those crossing succumb to the current.
When Mark receives the call from Kurt, whom he hasn’t heard from in some time, he responds to the ostensible invitation by stating he ‘could use some time in the woods’. Reichardt’s nod to transcendentalism is all part of her beautiful American patchwork, a vision of contemporary life in the small towns and rural backcountry of her home in the Pacific Northwest. The woods hold a mythic quality to those that grew up in their shadow, and provoke in men like Kurt and Mark a desire to retreat into them for good, leaving a post-it note on the kitchen counter and their cars in the driveway.
Reichardt’s film is one of the landmarks of American cinema, certainly the most quietly powerful ode to midlife anxiety and lost youth in recent memory. Kurt and Mark’s story is, like the Douglas Fir, one of many in an America that mourns its simple past. We take their story as our own, sit beside the dying fire with them, and remember when we ourselves went to the woods not because we had to, but because we wanted to.