Old Joy: Opens Sep 20

Sundance Film Festival, January 20, 2006—-Considering how weak the Sundance Festival Dramatic Competition was this year, both the Festival and the gifted but still little-known director Kelly Reicahrdt would have benefited if her new movie, “Old Joy,” would have been included in the main lineup rather than in the Frontier series.

With small, intimate scale and modest production values, Reichardt's work runs against the grain of most indies at present. Her first film, “River of Grass” (1994), was in the Dramatic Competition and was released by Strand but not many people saw it. Since then, Reichardt has made other good but little-seen films, such as Travis (2004), Then A Year (2002) and Ode (1999).

Based on intial response, “Old Joy” strikes me as her strongest, most mature film to date. Old Joy has just won the VPRO Tiger Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where it became the first American film in the history of the festival to receive this honor.

A quiet, soft-spoken, and moody film, “Old Joy” has formal if minimal elegance to spare. Not much happens by way of conventional plot, but the film is well written, precise in tonal shifts, powerful in feelings, and evocative in both personal and political meanings, which is more than I could say about most of the film at Sundance this year.

Based on the short story Old Joy, by Jonathan Raymond, the film stars Will Oldham, Daniel London, and in a small role Tanya Smith, and is executive-produced by indie icon Todd Haynes (“Safe,” “Far From Heaven,” “Velvet Goldmine”).

The movie tells the story of two lifelong friends, Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), who reunite for a weekend camping trip in the Cascade mountain range east of Portland. For Mark, the weekend outing offers a respite from the pressure of his imminent fatherhood. For Kurt, it is part of a long series of carefree adventures.

As the hours progress and the landscape evolves, the twin seekers move through a range of subtle emotions, enacting a pilgrimage of mutual confusion, sudden insight, and recurring intimations of spiritual battle. When they arrive at their final destination, a hot spring in an old growth forest, they must either confront the divergent paths they have taken, or somehow transcend their growing tensions in an act of forgiveness and mourning.

The joy in title refers to the pleasure of male bonding in a world unfettered by anything but youthful idealism. Though there's no way back, we still recognize that that such joy could still exist, albeit in different forms. Reichardt offers a contemplative anatomy of the fragility of friendship, bringing Jonathan Raymonds acute, melancholy story vividly to life, drenching the screen with the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest. The film combines Reichardts keenly observant storytelling with sharp visual skills, resulting in an individual work that' both impressive and unique in todays indie milieu

Indeed, production values are not only good, they serve the shifting mood of the story at each of its turns. Credit should go to Pete Sillen, the director of photography, Eric Offin, the sound mixer, and Yo La Tengo, who's responsible for the music, performed with Smokey Hormel. While best known for his music, Will Oldham has also acted in the films “Junebug,” “Elysian Fields,” and “Matewan,” amongst others. As a musician, Oldham has recorded nine albums and performed as Palace, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers and most recently Bonnie Prince Billy.

“Old Joy” is the collaborative effort of three artists: photographer Justine Kurland, writer Jon Raymond, and filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. The short story was originally conceived as a collaboration between Jon Raymond and Justine Kurland for Artspace Books, a forum for partnerships between visual artists and writers. (Previous Artspace books have included authors Joyce Carol Oates, Dennis Cooper, and Rick Moody, and visual artists Nan Goldin, Gregory Crewdson, and Matthew Ritchie.)

Kurland read Raymonds novel, “The Half-Life,” and sympathized with its lyrical depiction of the American landscape, and its treatment of the legacy of 1960s utopian communities, both themes of her own well-recognized work, invited him to participate in the collaboration. Raymond produced a story inspired by Kurland's most recent body of images, featuring burned forests and naked men and women in natural tableaux.

In the press notes, Raymond says: “One thing I've always responded to Kurland in her work, is the peculiarly American spirituality it participates in–this vaguely Biblical quality mixed with a pronounced animism. Her landscapes could be a Garden of Eden or a Romantic wilderness of the soul. Her naked figures could be Old Testament heroes, or transcendentalists, or hippies I figured a good accompaniment should have these kinds of resonances. I ended up doing what I think of as a kind of contemporary Cain and Abel story. Or a Cain and Abel story in reverse. Two estranged brothers traveling back into a primeval garden and reuniting.”

An artist interested in depictions of the American landscape and narratives of the road, Reichardt read the story in the summer of 2004, and saw in it the template for a meditative, naturalist cinematic project. Reichardt and Raymond proceeded to adapt the story, adding a character and a few scenes, but largely retaining the pieces subtle emotional pivots, forest setting, and much of the original dialogue.