Sunday, October 22, 2006

Disappointed OLDBOY fan wanders into wrong film, fights off gang of ushers with a hammer.

(Above: Guess which of these three characters is the most entertaining in Old Joy).

In a recent post on the Onion A.V. Club blog, Scott Tobias wrote, concerning Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy: “If you care at all about American independent films, you’re required to see these movies.” Well, here’s a slightly less hyperbolic rejoinder: if you’re reading this post you’re required to treat that statement with extreme skepticism. I haven’t seen Mutual Appreciation, as both the praise and derision I’ve read concerning Bujalski’s two films make them sound like something I’d prefer not to endure, but I did see Old Joy and while it mostly accomplishes its very modest goals, they amount to so little that asking you to spend $9.50 watching Portland hippies on an uneventful camping trip is a tough proposition, even if your right to call yourself an independent film fan is apparently at stake(?).

First, I must admit that despite living in the DC area for nearly two years this was the first film I’ve seen at the swank-ish AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring. I was one of six people in the theater for a 5:15 showing, which made for a slightly awkward introduction by the guy who encouraged us to spread word-of-mouth for the film (yeah, sorry). The movie observes two longtime friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), who reunite at Kurt’s suggestion after some time apart to check out a hot spring in the Oregon woods. While Kurt is an unemployed, perpetual flake who’s taken to wandering the streets at night, Mark and his very pregnant wife – who’s understandably wary of Kurt -both have unspecified careers which apparently monopolize most of their time. I should note the movie is acutely observed. Oldham is convincing and not overbearingly quirky as the sort of annoying, faux-esoteric bullshitter seemingly stuck in an unending post-grad phase - but hey, says he’s “in a really good place right now” - whom one should take great pains to avoid in life. Reichardt portrays the trip exactly as it would likely occur, meaning there’s no showy confrontations over long-buried tension; no whiny, vapid “soul-searching” and no torturous, allegedly witty patter of the sort that plagues films about professionally aimless 20/30-somthings. For the most part, they simply drive up, listen to Air America (thank God not Randi Rhodes) in the car, get lost, find the place, hang out in the woods, in the meantime there are a couple of telling, subtle moments (literally, there’s maybe a couple), and when it’s over they’ll likely resume their prospective courses.

Old Joy uncannily has the feel of a glacially paced contemporary Asian art film where you basically have to fill in story and meaning in your head based on the largely subtextual info on screen. Can we stop pretending this is some kind of inherently intellectual style of filmmaking? Often in my experience these films end up as an emptily pretentious dawdle whose main worth is as a cudgel for smug would-be cineastes to use against the rubes who surely “should stick to Adam Sandler movies” if they “don’t get it,” as if detractors can only be entrenched in one possible camp. But I digress. Admittedly the Pacific Northwest is one of the most fitting spots in the country to transplant this meditative style, but the constant nature shots aren’t exactly of Terrence Mallick-like grandeur (the film apparently wasn’t shot on video but manages to look like it). As for the characters themselves, Mark seems vaguely worried about Kurt’s deteriorating mental and professional state, but otherwise we know too little about him to get a read on him and he makes disappointingly little impression other than as a guy killing time on a meandering weekend. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes that during the centerpiece scene at the hot spring where Kurt describes an anxious dream that contains the film’s summative line – “sorrow’s just a worn-out joy,” Reichardt “finds perfect cinematic expression in a stunningly moving close-up of Mark’s open, surprised and now-joyful face.” I found the whole thing a bit more inscrutable; if he’s supposed to be experiencing some sort of genuinely euphoric moment (has this ever happened to you when you’ve heard people ramble about their stupid dreams?) rather than relaxing in a toasted haze it doesn’t come across and feels a bit unlikely and unearned, even if that line does cut to the quick of the characters’ current relationship. I do like the film more in retrospect, but its thin, 76-minute story simply doesn’t add up to much, and as one commenter on the AV Club blog noted, to call it “one of the finest American films of the year,” as the Times review does, is to raise expectations that likely won’t be rewarded - although then again, this has seemed like a fairly unremarkable year so maybe they will.

So yeah, this post has been a long, rambling way of advising, “wait for the dvd.” But if you need an immediate Oldham fix you can always check out this cameo appearance from "Wonder Showzen," where he indulges in some down-home hijinx with Zach Galifinakis and David Cross... and no, Cross' familiar attire in this segment is surely no accident.

UPDATE: Remember how I said I liked the film better in retrospect? Well, I find myself liking it even more now. I still think the muddy characterization is a huge flaw and the overall hippieness of it a tad irksome but I appreciate more the way the film eschews on-screen obnoxiousness that you can find in a zillion other sources for a calmer, more assured approach. Hey, I'm entitled to modify my opinion right? That's one of the perks of being an amateur nobody - that and not being deluged with pesky praise, professional respect and scads of promo materials. Who needs all that anyway?!? *cue desperate laughter*

1 comment:

loveyouintheface said...

You are entitled to your moody opinion and you are commanded to continue watching these "deeper than deep, bitches" type movies and review them on your blog. I need a Will Oldham fix and I will see this motion picture in the theatre BUT you have lowered my expectations so that if the movie is even kind of ok, my $9 will be validated as a hipster-esteem boosting expense.