New Realisms and Old Joys
In 2006, Kelly Reichardt smashed into the American independent film spotlight with her second debut, her breakout masterpiece, Old Joy. On the surface a film about two old friends reuniting for a poorly planned road trip to a hot spring, Old Joy is a devastatingly quiet indictment of lost illusions and a world in decline. Lukas Armstrong-Laird and Alex Lei sat down in their Baltimore kitchen to reflect on the film for its online screening at IFFR 50/50:
Lukas Armstrong-Laird: What was your first experience with Old Joy?
Alex Lei: Well, I sort of came to it by accident. It must’ve been five or six years ago, when I was working on a paper about slow cinema in college. Reichardt’s films aren’t always considered “slow,” but she sometimes gets grouped in. While doing research for the paper, Dr. Nelson, the great Western scholar—
LAL: And not to mention our film school professor, thesis advisor, and all-around mentor figure.
AL: Right, of course. So, Nelson lent me his copy of Meek’s Cutoff and said, “You gotta see this.” He’d shown it in his Western class before, but that didn’t go over well apparently. Anyway, I watched it and was hooked. At the time, a few of Reichardt’s movies were on Fandor, and I remember watching Old Joy while sitting on the floor of my bedroom, right up against the TV, just obsessed with the thing. Right around the end of the movie, as the two main characters Mark and Kurt are driving back to Portland, one of my roommates at the time came in to ask what I was watching. When I told her she just asked, “Why would you watch a movie no one’s heard of?”
LAL: How did you answer that question?
AL: I don’t know, I guess I was caught off guard. But back around 2015, Kelly Reichardt wasn’t a household name in the indie scene yet. Before Certain Women, people were keeping an eye on her. She’d made several acclaimed movies—I’d even call them masterpieces—but she hadn’t made one that could quite connect with the wider film world yet.
LAL: And that’s really what First Cow was, I feel like. You saw that at NYFF right?
AL: Yeah, I was actually at the U.S. premiere.
LAL: And then you accosted Kelly after to get her to sign your Criterion of Certain Women.
AL: “Accosted” is a strong word. I politely approached her after the screening. And it was your Criterion, if I remember correctly.
LAL: Oh yeah. Thanks for that, by the way.
AL: I actually mentioned to her that it was my roommate’s copy. “Where’s yours?” she asked. “In a box in Portland somewhere.” “Oh yeah, that happens,” she told me.
LAL: She gets you.
AL: Yeah, of course she does. But, let’s get back to the prompt: when was the first time you watched Old Joy?
LAL: The first time I watched it was with you, actually. We rented it from Beyond Video, the great Baltimore non-profit video store, and we threw it on one night—
AL: Oh yeah, and you fell asleep.
LAL: I was tired! I was absolutely loving the film, but I was so exhausted from work that I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I remember waking up to that incredible Yo La Tengo score as the credits rolled. It reminds me of the Abbas Kiarostami quote—
AL: The one about falling asleep during your favourite movies?
LAL: Yeah, the exact quote is, “Some films have made me doze off in the theatre, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” That’s how I feel about Old Joy. I swear I still hear that atmospheric Yo La Tengo music in my dreams. Funnily enough, I also fell asleep watching Kiarostami’s 24 Frames (2017) around the same time.
AL: But you also rewatched Old Joy right away—like you woke up at the end and put the movie back on from the beginning.
LAL: I had to know. I was rested and ready for some Reichardt. I still haven’t rewatched 24 Frames, though. I don’t think Kiarostami would be offended.
AL: But there’s something to that.
LAL: Do you want a beer?
AL: Oh yeah, thanks…. I mean, going back to the slow cinema thing, that calmness, ambience, etc. is essential to the viewing experience. You have to allow yourself to be lulled into the film’s internal rhythm. It’s not a boring experience by any means, but it’s definitely more akin to looking out the window on a long road trip than it is to a car chase.
LAL: Which does happen a lot in Old Joy—
AL: Car chase?!
LAL: No! The camera looking out the window as the characters drive in and out of Portland. How do you, as someone from there, feel about Reichardt’s portrayal of the city?
AL: Well, I grew up in Portland, but on the threshold between the city proper and those kinds of suburbs you have everywhere. So I kind of always had this really familiar yet somehow alienated feeling. I wasn’t really able to put this into words, actually, until I showed another friend from Portland Old Joy. He was initially bothered by how the camera has a sort of outsider’s perspective of the city, or at least one that doesn’t completely align with the perspective of a local. But for me, it was exactly as I’d always perceived the city; I just didn’t realise that I’d always been something of an onlooker there—feeling comfortable in the place but maybe not quite at home.
LAL: Kind of like the main characters.
LAL: What was that thing you said about the diner they eat at in the film?
AL: Oh yeah, that diner they eat at on Highway 30 hasn’t been there for years, probably the better part of a decade at this point. It closed down and became a Subway, but that Subway has also since closed down. I don’t know what’s there anymore. A lot of the places you see in the film have changed really fast, not just in the last 15 years since the movie was made, but even in the last 5. That yellow house is still there last I checked—it’s just that there’s multi-story apartment buildings all around it now.
LAL: The film does feel like it’s about gentrification, in more ways than one.
AL: And that’s something that Reichardt was trying to emphasise: that post-industrial collapse and the people that have been left behind because of it. Fusco and Seymour really get into this in their book about Reichardt. They talk about a “slow unfolding” in character, landscape, mise-en-scene, etc.; it brings forth, as they say, emergency. And they mean the term both literally and as emergence. Portland is gentrifying, but slowly. It was happening then, although now it’s happening fast enough to where it’s impossible not to notice. Mark has reached a sort of acceptance of this fact—the house, the wife, the kid on the way—whereas Kurt is trying to outrun his slow push to the margins. He sees the homeless man at the end—
LAL: They are wearing the same coat, basically.
AL: Yes, and he realises he’s right on the brink of total desperation too. I mean, the whole world is slowly collapsing around them. “There’s trees in the city and garbage in the forest,” as Kurt says. It’s all just happening very slowly, emerging in the kind of way that lets people go about their lives without really taking note. I think that’s at the heart of why Reichardt slows it all down for this film.
LAL: So, earlier on you said Reichardt’s films aren’t always considered “slow,” but they sometimes get grouped in.
AL: Well, yes, she gets grouped in a lot. She has a rhythm that’s different than most American movies, that’s for sure. She’s very interested in chores and routines, things that are usually the first to get compressed in the editing room—but Reichardt likes to leave these moments in. There’s the scene where Mark sets off in his Volvo to meet up with Kurt, and the camera holds on the neighbour as she’s mowing her lawn. It’s an update of Cesare Zavattini’s concept of “dailiness,” that emphasis on “everyday life” that was so important to the neorealists. I think in Old Joy Reichardt is starting from a foundation that was laid by these “slow” filmmakers and makes her way towards narrative. And it’s all without the sentimentality of the neorealists and the nostalgia that is often—maybe wrongly—associated with “slow” filmmakers. But ultimately, slow cinema is just too broad of an umbrella, and the way people use the phrase is often wrong.
LAL: What exactly do you think people are getting wrong?
AL: Well, let me take this back to Nelson, our college advisor. He was roommates—well, I don’t know if roommates, but he was friends—with Matt Flanagan while they were working on their theses at Exeter. Flanagan’s thesis is an essential document on slow cinema; in it he works through its trends, forms, aesthetics, etc. People usually think of slow cinema as some kind of return to nature that is in opposition to modernity or Hollywood or the mainstream—and by that I mean in direct opposition. Even Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a key figure of slow cinema, talks specifically about a return to “something simple,” and this is what Flanagan thinks is misleading to a lot of casual critics looking at slow cinema, as well as what is misleading about Weerasethakul’s films themselves.
LAL: What was the thing Weerasethakul said about Avatar?
AL: He said you couldn’t show Avatar to audiences fifty years ago—it’d be “too experimental.”
AL: And he is being genuine when he says “simplify”—he really does want to get away from the weird, choppy momentum of Hollywood and back to something closer to the actualities from the turn of the century. But my point is that that doesn’t mean the films act strictly in opposition to Hollywood, at least not in the way some critics argue. Most slow cinema doesn’t even seem interested in that Hollywood mode of filmmaking. They’re trying to deterritorialise the cinematic hegemony, not be opposite to the money men on a debate stage.
LAL: But what exactly does all this have to do with Old Joy?
AL: Well, it just shows that slow cinema isn’t actually this strict, binary thing—i.e. being either slow or fast—even if that’s what most people want to frame it as. Reichardt’s films don’t really fit well within that binary at all. And, I wanted to bring up Weerasethakul because Reichardt talks a lot about how she was struggling in the development stage of Old Joy to really explain the “feel” of the movie, and she was even wondering if it could be pulled off until she watched Blissfully Yours. The whole second half of the film where the characters are just dinking around in the Thai wilderness, coming to terms with who they are through their relationship with the environment—that’s what Reichardt wanted for Old Joy.
LAL: That’s interesting, given Weerasethakul’s films also often have homoerotic elements.
AL: Yes! There are quite a few examples—including that scene in the office building early on in Blissfully Yours—that I think Reichardt is drawing on. It’s interesting that while there is so much ambiguity in Weerasethakul’s films, the gay elements are oftentimes overtly textual. Reichardt is clearly doing something else. Of course, the ambiguous moment that comes when Kurt massages Mark in the hot spring is taken from the Jon Raymond story that the film is adapted from, but I think you can feel traces of Weerasethakul in there as well. There’s even what seems like a direct citation: I’m thinking of the shot in Blissfully Yours where Orn is looking at her hands in the pond and the shot in Old Joy where Mark relaxes to the massage and drops his hand into the water—their wedding bands even sparkle in the same way.
LAL: That’s a great little homage I didn’t notice. I know Kelly Reichardt also worked on a season of America’s Next Top Model to earn money to fund Old Joy. Do you think America’s Next Top Model, like Weerasethakul, had an influence on the film?
AL: Honestly, yeah, it had to, right?
LAL: That’s ridiculous. I was joking!
AL: I mean, a central thread of Old Joy is the two characters’ interaction with contemporary culture: one gives a loud objection, the other a sort of tacit acceptance. There’s no way that Reichardt would be that close to the cultural focal point and not be thinking about that in some way.
LAL: It does seem like a very Bush-era type of show.
AL: I’ve never actually seen it.
LAL: Wow. You’re ridiculous.
AL: Have you seen it?
LAL: Yeah my sister used to watch it a lot.
AL: Okay. All I’m saying is Reichardt is interacting directly with the culture of that time. But similar to what we said earlier about slow cinema and critics having a habit of placing movies within strict categories, they also like to burden them with strict interpretations. Like, Reichardt’s films are interacting with culture, yes, but I don’t think they are making some definitive statement about it.
LAL: No, there is much more nuance.
AL: Yeah, Old Joy is not just “reject modernity, embrace tradition.” Again, you could go watch Avatar if that’s what you’re looking for, or even Night Moves—there, at least, Reichardt lets the characters follow that idea to its logical conclusion and one of them becomes Raskolnikov.
LAL: Night Moves is almost her condemnation of that binary way of thinking.
AL: Her films aren’t statements about how to solve these big problems; they’re made to reframe what is happening and force the audience to actually see the slow violence taking place around them. There’s that common misconception of slow cinema as being some bucolic or nostalgic endeavour. Even when Weerasethakul talks about his films as an escape from the exponential speed and encroachment of modernity, that’s the most surface level reading possible. He describes the forest in Blissfully Yours as a dream or a memory, but not just because it’s been destroyed and now he’s missing it, but also because it’s haunted by this slow, impending demise. It’s not just some pretty wilderness where people can get away—it’s similar to the quaint houses turning into decaying industrial buildings as Mark and Kurt drive out of town in Old Joy.
LAL: It connects back to that thing Kurt says about trees in the city and garbage in the forest.
AL: For sure. So, to kind of summarise, it’s not so much that Reichardt is or isn’t slow cinema, it’s that the common parlance about slow cinema isn’t correct.
LAL: Sounds a lot like the term “mumblecore.”
AL: Yeah, don’t some people call Old Joy mumblecore? That seems like another example of people putting weird frames on her movies.
LAL: It is. Similar to what you’re talking about with slow cinema, she gets grouped in occasionally with mumblecore. I wrote my thesis on mumblecore, and in my research I found a handful of early writing about mumblecore that considered both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy to be mumblecore movies. But as time has gone on, she has been able to almost completely avoid that descriptor (unlike many other filmmakers), probably for the better. I don’t think many people today are describing Kelly Reichardt movies as mumblecore, even Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.
AL: But what do you think people were latching onto back then?
LAL: I think it has a lot to do with the timing. Also, I think people were latching onto the general DIY ethos of Old Joy, as well as its seemingly meandering plot and characters. Interestingly, the 2009 mumblecore film Humpday, directed by the late great Lynn Shelton, even features an eerily similar plot to Old Joy: two old friends—one, the married family man, and the other, the more “alternative” nomadic type—reunite for an awkward, poorly planned adventure of some kind. Except in Humpday, the homoeroticism is not ambiguous at all. It is front and centre: the characters attempt to make a gay porno for an amateur pornographic film festival. Humpday was shot in the Pacific Northwest (like Old Joy), and it was heavily improvised like a lot of other mumblecore films. Reichardt would often get asked if Old Joy was improvised because its characters seem to ramble, but it wasn’t. And I think a lot of people thought Daniel London and Will Oldham were non-actors, another mumblecore staple.
AL: Daniel London was in Minority Report.
LAL: Yes, exactly! And Will Oldham was an actor long before he was a musician. It’s also important to note that Reichardt was not a “new” filmmaker, like most of the mumblecore people were. Earlier on you said she wasn’t a “household name,” which is true, but she did at least have some prestige to her name, having made the acclaimed yet underseen River of Grass in 1994. And Todd Haynes was an executive producer of Old Joy. So, in many ways, she was more a product of the 1990s independent scene than the mumblecore movement of the late 2000s. Her films also tend to be quieter and less driven by dialogue than most mumblecore films, including Humpday for that matter, which could also be a factor as to why she is not now associated with the term.
AL: And mumblecore is another one of those vague umbrella terms, especially nowadays.
LAL: Exactly. While the films obviously have some aesthetic and narrative similarities, those similarities are super general and, quite frankly, overstated. For example, a lot of mumblecore films were heavily scripted as opposed to improvised, and many were shot on film as opposed to digital. Not to mention each filmmaker had a distinct style and approach. This would seem to leave room for a film like Old Joy. But above these vague similarities, I think the mumblecore movement was more defined by its interconnectivity: a group of like-minded filmmakers making DIY films at a particular moment in time due to a context created by specific industrial, cultural, and technological factors. It’s very easy to trace the web of personnel in the mumblecore scene, both in front of and behind the camera. If you want to go that route, it might seem at first glance like Reichardt was in fact isolated from the movement. But Anish Savjani, a producer on Old Joy, and I’m pretty sure all of Reichardt’s subsequent films, was also a producer of Hannah Takes the Stairs, Joe Swanberg’s 2007 film that is essentially the most mumblecore of all mumblecore films. Savjani also produced several other Swanberg films during that period. So, if you go looking for those connections, they are indeed there.
AL: Didn’t she teach Ti West too?
LAL: Yes! I almost forgot. She was Ti West’s professor in the early 2000s, and he was apparently the only one in the class who had seen Larry Fessenden’s 1995 film Habit. She knew Fessenden from River of Grass obviously, and she introduced them. Fessenden produced Ti West’s first film and several others I think. He basically got West’s career off the ground.
AL: So what you’re telling me is Kelly Reichardt started “mumblegore.”
LAL: One could say that.
AL: What about the political aspects of Reichardt’s movies? I know mumblecore often got criticised for being apolitical.
LAL: Yeah, that’s another important element of her work that differentiated her. People often attacked mumblecore for a supposed narrow worldview or shallowness—
AL: There’s that Swanberg quote about the Iraq War.
LAL: Yeah, he said, “I don’t feel like I have anything to say right now about the Iraq war. The stories of my life and my friends’ lives are the ones I can tell most completely.” I defend mumblecore in that regard, partly because Swanberg is 100% correct, and partly because I don’t think mumblecore movies were apolitical at all. They often did deal with politics—for example, in Hannah Takes the Stairs the characters work at a production company creating a satirical show called “Bush League”—it was just not ever their priority; the emphasis was always inward. But I do think the historical context of mumblecore, and the way in which the films were made, was inherently political and anti-capitalist. Just as America’s middle class was nearing oblivion, so was the middle class of American independent cinema, which in turn caused filmmakers to resort to completely DIY projects made for little to no money that, when put together, seemed to pose a threat to the industry’s status quo. But to bring it back to Kelly, I wouldn’t call her films overtly political necessarily, but they do deal with social issues more directly, which sets her apart from someone like Swanberg. Her characters are on the fringes. There is more desperation—more emergency as you said earlier. This is why—not to add yet another nebulous moniker to the mix—she is also sometimes grouped in with a trend called neo-neorealism, a perceived global drift toward the portrayals of people on the margins, struggling as a result of political or cultural forces. Picking up where the Italians left off, I guess, which actually connects back to what we talked about earlier with Reichardt and Zavattini.
AL: Yes. And Old Joy, with its depiction of essentially Bush-era neoliberalism—the Air America radio sequences, hints of gentrification, and the film’s ending—seems to fit that neo-neorealism mould.
LAL: And Wendy and Lucy, in the context of the Great Recession, would only up the ante. Wendy and Lucy was technically made before the stock market crash, but it—and Old Joy I’d argue—proves that the economic problems of the Great Recession had been developing, or I should say, emerging, for a very long time before that.
AL: I think that is definitely true.
LAL: But the term neo-neorealism is also quite a futile one in regards to Reichardt, in my opinion. Like, it doesn’t matter whether or not Old Joy is slow cinema, mumblecore, or neo-neorealism. It is all of these things and none of these things. The existence of these terms does nothing but showcase the vitality and variation of independent cinema at that time in history, as well as, of course, show how singular and layered Old Joy is, especially for a 73-minute movie. It’s almost impossible to describe the film, and Reichardt’s films in general, with one word. Doing so just seems wrong and oversimple.
AL: Nobody puts Kelly in a corner.