After seeing two genuinely well-made NY indies, I eagerly rushed into the screening room to see Old Joy by Kelly Reichardt, another New York native. One of the main roles is played by cult muso Will Oldham. It was executive produced by indie star director Todd Haynes and the film had won a Tiger Award at the Rotterdam, which is usually reserved for successful cinematic pioneering.
Unfortunately, the Rotterdam Tigers must have had an off-day, because Old Joy looks remarkably similar to the type of well-meaning, but ultimately not convincing video features spawned by the Land of the Free and the Home of the Shortcut. Shooting on video because you can't afford film is not a great opportunity for undiscovered talent. It's a shortcut that almost never works. Old Joy was shot on 16mm, but screened digitally to save money, something which American critic Dave Kehr claims is not visible. Well, it is. Please people, if you're going to shoot a Hou Hsiao Sien-inspired meditation on the healing powers of nature, don't involve pixels. They are not easy on the eye, the green is too green, the light is too harsh and it ends up looking like a cheap-ass nature program on Japanese TV.
Secondly, like any other U.S. indie, the film contains a great deal of verbal sparring between Kurt (Oldham), a free spirit who drags his old friend Mark (Daniel London) away from his highly pregnant passive-aggressive wife for a weekend of camping in one of Washington State's impressive national parks. Kurt misses the good old days and vies for Mark's attention with exactly the same kind of nagging that poor embattled Mark has to endure from his wife. Oldham's performance is both wooden and smug at the same time, while London's role isn't meaty enough to portray much more than a hotly-pursued pretty boy with soulful eyes.
They go camping in the mountains and find a tucked-away hot spring. Reichardt inserts close-ups of snails and ferns to emphasize the meditative powers of nature, but it feels like a contrived mechanism, not part of the film as a whole. No film that includes huge chunks of dialogue neatly conveying the characters' emotions is suddenly going to turn into an introspective art gem. Man Push Cart is a successful film because it makes the viewers guess about its characters' inner life, rather than have them pour out their hearts to the first available victim. Mark's uptightness finally melts away in the hot spring, where Kurt offers a deep tissue shoulder massage. Reichardt hints at a happy ending by showing Mark's hand with his wedding ring slip into the water when he lets go of his tensions. I'm sure there are more poetic ways to show the delights of a hand job, especially if you are going to emulate Asian masters of visual restraint.
Another American critic, Emanuel Levy, doesn't understand why the Sundance festival put Old Joy in its experimental Frontier section and not in its competition. At the opening night reception in the lobby of the MoMA, a New York Post critic proclaimed that he really likes the film too. It seems people are really hungry to embrace new American indie talent. Well, Sundance director Geoff Gilmore may know something that the Tiger jury didn't. To paraphrase New York's dating manual du jour (He's Just Not That Into You), "the film just isn't that good". But as the ND/NF program shows, there are lots of other homegrown productions to love.