Friday, May 25, 2007
Cinema 2006: Old Joy
One of the defining "problems" of cinema is representation. Rarely can an image merely exist. Documentary or fiction, all movies in some form or another adhere to a narrative structure, therefore any image of that movie is constructed and positioned in relation to that narrative framework. The nature of that structure may differ, but since cinema is itself a culmination and extension of various art forms, narrative media and technologies, it has been positioned in a narrative spectrum from which it cannot escape.
While Deleuze may have been overly simplistic in labeling Italian Neo-realism as the liberating movement in cinema, his summation generally holds up insofar that many films of the neo-realism variety were explicitly reflexive of classical styles and refused to adhere to a connect-the-dots mode of film language that the early days of cinema necessarily offered. While much of American cinema moved along that same plane of film language (keep in mind that I'm writing in generalities so as to avoid a dissertation here), neo-realism films created gaps in films language, turned the system of signification that the moving image had become upside down and explored narrative possibilities from a standpoint of subtlty and abstraction. It was still reliant upon those very classical traditions in order to deviate from them, but they opened up what Deleuze calls the time-image, an image free from representation despite being made possible through its properties. The time-image may or may not more stringently adhere to classical narrative structures, styles, and traditions, but the key is that it expands upon them and confounds the comfortable familiarity of their cliches. The time-image does not allow the spectator to see less than the image, but rather enables her to see the whole image, in so doing moving beyond mere representation. This notion best surmises Deleuze's claim that cinema is another world altogether, not a symbolic representation of one.
Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy seems to me an extension of the essence of neo-realism. From a narrative standpoint, it is straightforward, chronicling the overnight camping trip of two old friends. Structurally, Old Joy exhibits simplicity, starting with Mark (Daniel London) receiving a call from his friend, Kurt (William Oldham), inviting him to meet up and hike through the woods of Oregon. Although this short description encompasses the extent of the introduction from the standpoint of plot, the film announces itself as one of real images (despite their apparent lack of stylization) and subtly stated emotions from its opening shot (a bird sitting on the roof of Mark's house). The actors' faces envelope the frames; Mark and his pregnant wife share few words in the film's opening scenes, but in the camera's intimate observation of both of them, the spectator can explore the same ambiguity transpiring between the characters. Nothing is really stated. We don't uncover any plot points other than is made visible in the compositions. Instead, we have an emotionally complex visual design through what appears to be simplicity.
I am spending so much time on this opening sequence because it establishes an atmosphere that permeates the film, setting up the viewer's knowledge of Mark and his wife before incorporating Kurt into the narrative. From a representational standpoint, we can gather what we know about Mark and Kurt based on the images and the dialogue, but this film is not about easily compartmentalized feelings and actions. It's about the feelings underneath the memory.
When the two meet up and begin their trip, the film enables the viewer to immerse herself in the lives of these individuals through the sublimity of the "ordinary" images. The images in fact are far from ordinary and capture every small detail of Kurt and Mark's relationship - from joking at the gas station, uncomfortable pauses when they scramble for things to talk about, shooting cans with beebee guns, and conversing about their lives over the past 20 years in short sentences, carefully phrasing their thoughts do to their own uncertainties about themselves and each other. All the while, the emotions conjured by the images is both hard to pinpoint, yet overwhelming in their nostalgia. The spectator knows nothing about these people outside these few days it follows them. We only know the extent of their relationship based on their own insider accounts of old memories. But this coupled with the observant nature of the film's images - whether it's panning the tree tops or lingering on facial expressions - result in a joyously bittersweet experience of reminiscing and enjoying the transient beauty of an old friendship. The backdrop of the densely wooded forrest only further emphasizes the isolation of such feeling and memory, and the film's contrast of these men and the woods they walk in builds the perfect atmosphere in which to set this nostalgic journey.
In its gentle simplicity and seemingly straightforward observations of these characters on two days of their lives, Old Joy builds a relationship between spectator and image brimming with ambiguity and nuanced emotion, mirroring the relationship between Mark and Kurt. Tensions are abound, and as much as we would like to easily categorize the aspects of the relationship and the feelings emerging from it, such simplicity is not ever possible within the seemingly simple relationship. The main struggle within the spectator/image relationship is (in general terms) the confusion over obervation and identification. Both infer a greater idea of representation, as if the viewer's observation of these characters triggers one's own experiences, thus we have identification through observation. Are we the characters or are we watching and identifying them? Further, what does it mean to "identify" with a character at all? Questions such as these are immensely difficult to answer, even if one has unlimited time and space to do so. They concern the greater relations between individual and cultures and narrative/cinema. With regards to narrative, cinema does separate itself in its visual nature. The purpose of narrative is to form a representation, but the very idea of seeing and hearing an action existing in its own place and time seems to conflict with this notion.
Old Joy exemplifies this relationship between spectator and image. And this comes through in dynamic of the characters and the deeply intimate portrait presented by Reichardt that both lets us into their minds, yet keeps us at a firm distance, as if to remind that every moment and every aspect of lived experience is subject to perception and interpretation. That tension defines Kurt and Mark's relationship as it does the cinema/spectator duality. While it ultimately introduces so many questions in its presentation of this narrative and these characters, what underlies the images and narrative structure is an examination and reflection on the very idea of experience and nostalgia. The images then serve to reflect the ambiguities and abstraction shared between two people whose experiences cannot be surmised by the language between them, but intead by the memory and feeling of such experiences.
Old Joy's sublime images and simple presentation of narrative exhibit a beauty about cinema (as a medium) that no amount of critical rumination can capture. Mark and Kurt's relationship - all its struggles, misunderstandings, and beauties - is not suggested through (or represented by) the images, but rather exists in the images themselves and our perceptions and interpretations of them. That is cinema, and that is the human sociocultural experience.