“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln quotably declared in the summer of 1858, and the softly rolling Old Joy, set nearly a century and a half later, explores the nature of the current divide in its America, potentially threatening to be as serious as the one Honest Abe was addressing all those years ago; that is, a culture war shaping up to be a Civil War. At its center are two friends, played by Daniel London and Will Oldham (hipster icon and bonnie prince), who function as allegorical representations of the two strains of American spirit; they have a shared history, exhibited by their casual reference to old friends and old record shops, but at present find their relationship to be awkward and strained, though they don’t often acknowledge it. While George Bush promised, both laughably and sadly, in hindsight, in his pre-presidency campaigning to be a “uniter and not a divider”, Old Joy takes place inside an America that is deeply disjoined; in the aural rearground Air America hums out of London’s car radio, as the hosts and callers-in discuss and debate the divisiveness omnipresent in contemporary politics, from racism to party affiliations to economic disparity, and not even they have the decency to treat each other with civility, though they profess to be fighting for the same faction in the war at home.
The American populace is polarized, and the macrocosm of that opposition is boiled-down into two avatars, one, Oldham, representing the free and peripatetic spirit of the West, a Greeleyite, and the other, London, a settled family man with a baby on the way; in the process, the two come to vaguely encompass not only the red-state/blue-state divide but something ineffable that runs much deeper. While shooting an airgun in the middle of the film, London sums it up elegantly: “aiming with two hands is responsible shooting; one hand is renegade shooting,” he says, referring to himself and Oldham respectively. It’s the modern American family man vs. the mythical American spirit, once interconnected and now deeply alienated. Reichardt symbolizes their disparity late in the film by cutting to a shot of a bird and then to one of a slug.
London is introduced at home, but separated from his wife physically; she is blending smoothies to the tunes of Country-Western, while he is trying to silently meditate in their backyard. Their relationship is contentious and sad to watch, just one more American duo treating each other with hostility, as they argue in whiny phrases common to the bourgeoisie with a passive-aggressiveness approaching full-blown estrangement. He ditches her—several months pregnant—in order to spend a night in the woods with his old friend, Oldham, just recently drifted into their Oregonian town. The two men’s short, inepic trip into the forest in search of a hot spring is pitched as a small attempt for reconciliation between the two erstwhile, grown-apart friends but on a grander scale is a reconciliatory effort on behalf of the two disunified strains of contemporary America, a search for rekindling the lost friendship, love and kindness—society’s foundation—missing not only from London and Oldham’s relationship to one another but from the relationship of the culture to itself. “I miss you real bad,” Oldham, with a few beers and a few bowls in him, confesses by the campfire, “there’s something between us and I want it to go away.”
Clocking in at just over seventy minutes, Old Joy is nothing if not underbearing, and while my reading of the film may seem to imply a hammy execution, it’s actually quite easy to miss; Jack Mathews, the ever oblivious populist, wrote in The New York Daily News that the film “features some of the year’s most beautiful scenery and two of its most wooden characters.” But Old Joy, based on a short story of the same name by Jonathan Raymond, is only deceptively slight, and it’s meticulously crafted, incredibly intricate as well as economic; though some sequences of Oregon scenery set to Yo La Tengo’s prettily melodious guitar tunes are superfluous and border on the corny—and some cut away shots of birds seem pretentiously portentous (when Godard needed to pad a film to feature length, he’d just have characters read the newspaper aloud)—there is not a single line of wasted dialogue, each building on the central metaphor and establishing the characters’ characters and their seemingly fundamental variegation.
While camping at night, London remarks that it’s good to get out of the city, but Oldham counters this assertion, remarking that, “there’s trees in the city and garbage in the forest,” concluding that there’s now little difference between them. While at first this feels like a strikingly depressing fact (garbage in the forest!?!), the point is meant to be optimistic, implying that Americans may see one another as irreconcilably differentiated, but in fact at this point they are essentially the same. Early on Oldham speaks of an evening spent on the beaches of Big Sur in which there was such a party he was overwhelmed by how joyful it was, which functions as a contrast to the joylessness of London’s domestic life in town. But neither side here is posited as superior, and one’s reading of the film depends a lot on the personal baggage you bring to it; Oldham might seem hopelessly naive, but simultaneously London can appear to be unsympathetically cynical. Reichardt, for her part, stays out of it, portraying each as a lacking a certain something that the other possesses, and Old Joy is best enjoyed when the viewer sees himself in both and in neither.
At the hot springs Oldham relates a dream he had in which a fifty year old Indian woman—with a “dot on her forehead”—offered him a piece of aphoristic wisdom: “sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.” The malaise London and Oldham feel in their lives, and that America’s feeling in its cultural roots, is a cause of its drifting apart to the point of antagonism. But the important point is that they only feel sorrow now because once upon a time they felt joy together, and that old feeling is not irrecapturable. At the hot springs Oldham offers London a back-rub, which many people have read as homoerotic, that he tries to reject; though he ultimately succumbs, the trip back from the hot springs is one of silence as the trees turn back into familiar totems such as gas stations. The attempt to reach out to him has failed, and when Oldham and London part ways at the end they don’t seem any closer to coming together than they did at the beginning; in fact, it now seems very unlikely while earlier there was at least a modicum of hope. London flips back on Air America in all its misery, while Oldham hits the streets. In Old Joy‘s final moments, Oldham offers a beggar what’s presumably the last of his cash, and it’s a beautifully subdued moment of cinematic optimism; London may or may not change his life as a result of this trip, but Oldham at least is still making a small effort to connect to another person, and America is still not entirely lost even if it doesn’t want a back-rub.