February 5, 2007

Cornell Cinema

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Filmmakers face a daunting challenge when attempting to bring a short story to the silver screen. Novels can be truncated through images and music, and the writer/director can concentrate on those elements of the story they wish to emphasize in the film. Short story-to-film translations, on the other hand, tend to be structurally literal, providing few avenues for creative diversion. A good film adaptation of a good short story will match its inspiration in subtlety, pace and that feeling of quiet reflection that settles in the mind upon closure.

The 2006 film Old Joy, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is based on a short story by American writer Jonathan Raymond. I haven’t read Mr. Raymond’s work, but upon seeing the film, I can conclude one of two things: either “Old Joy” is not a good short story, or Old Joy is not a good adaptation of that short story. Either way, the movie is missing something essential, be it interpretable inspiration or inspired interpretation.

The movie begins (and continues, and climaxes, and concludes…) innocuously, with Mark (Daniel London) receiving a phone call from his old friend Kurt (Will Oldham), with whom he used to spend so much time and who he now rarely sees. Kurt wants to strike up the “old times,” and he proposes they go camping and then to the hot springs in the Cascade Mountains, outside of Portland, Oregon, where Mark now lives. We garner from the annoyed tolerance with which Tanya (Tanya Smith) — Mark’s wife, who is expecting their first child — treats Kurt’s phone call that he may not be the most welcome presence. Still, Mark agrees to go on the trip, perhaps to relive old times, perhaps to stall the new ones of fatherhood.

It becomes immediately clear that of the two friends who spent so much time together in their youths, Kurt is the one who never really moved on. Kurt asks Mark to drive, because his beat-up van can’t make it up the hills, and he borrows ten dollars before they set off to buy some pot. Kurt, who is supposed to be giving Mark directions to the hot springs, can’t seem to remember exactly which turn to make, and the two quickly get lost. While pulled over at the side of the road examining a map, Mark steps outside to answer a phone call from his wife; Kurt languorously lights up a joint and watches Mark pace up and down the road.

The two men decide to camp out for the night and get an early head start the next day. Kurt’s freewheeling lifestyle and philosophy jar with Mark’s increasingly domestic nature, and Mark’s sidelong glances and confused expressions reveal a disconnection between the two, a fact that is not lost on Kurt. After a brief breakdown, in which Kurt laments that he knows there’s “something between us” that he wishes would go away, Mark consoles him, pathetically reassuring him otherwise. They continue their trip the next day and try to relax at the hot springs when they finally arrive. Both know, however, that whatever they once had they left behind long ago.

The problem is, the audience also knows that, and, indeed, it makes itself perfectly clear not long after Mark and Kurt reunite. The film adds nothing to that knowledge, however — in and of itself, it is the point of the movie. But it continues to drag its feet, with languid camerawork, latent political and homosexual undertones and the vitality of tree bark. There is no payoff because the film revealed itself before we had ever invested in it.

Still, Old Joy received rave reviews when it came out a few months ago. Critics praised its “stunning” cinematography, contemplative nature, universal appeal and quiet, measured tone. Perhaps most people would agree with this, but I can’t help but scratch my head when I read such approbation. The film’s message of lost relationships and the transience of the human experience is not only undercut by the torpor of the movie, but also by the fact that it has been conveyed countless times in a much more profound way.

One critic compared Old Joy to the James Joyce story “The Dead.” Indeed, both works are minimalist tales about the irretrievable casualties of time, but the similarities stop there. While Joyce’s story is as timeless as the snow that falls upon all the living and all the dead, Old Joy is much more forgettable precisely because it has nothing new to say.