By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Old Joy,” Kino, 2006]
American indies should, it is legended, do what mainstream Hollywood movies can’t and sorry, that does not include crazy violence or eccentric comedy, both of which the studios can do well enough, thank you. (If only independent filmmakers who think exclusively in those terms would fill out their resumes shooting commercials like their supposed to, instead of turkey-stuffing the indie niche with recycled dross and tired “dependies”…) Of course, as Kelly Reichardt’s film “Old Joy” amply demonstrated last year, a real, unique, originally voiced indie appears on the radar and, despite unanimous critical hosannas, it is all but ignored by a supposedly authenticity-hungry audience. American movies don’t come much smaller, subtler or swoonier with tactile experience than Reichardt’s festival hit a rare commitment to heartfelt naturalism, the most difficult special effect of all, keeps the movie free of bull and cool-indie toxins. The narrative (from a short story by Oregon author Jon Raymond, which was published as an coffee-table book illustrated by photographs) is almost absurdly simple. In Portland, one old college friend calls another: let’s get lost, just for a few days, in the Cascades. Mark (Daniel London) is a watchful, even-tempered father-to-be with a high-pressure job; Kurt (Will Oldham) is an unmarried searcher, still living the West Coast dorm paradigm with odd jobs, a headful of weed and unconvincing stories of spiritual awakenings. Their post-hippie pasts are behind them, and the future appears either stressful or non-existent. They head for a hot-springs retreat in the forest, can’t find it, camp elsewhere, hit a diner, then arrive and kick back.
That’s it, but we see much more: “Old Joy” might be the only film ever specifically made about that universal moment when the bonds of youth begin to rust and fade and become irrelevant against the bombardments of age and responsibility. Not that anyone in the film says as much Reichardt’s strategy is entirely a matter of looks, pauses and unvoiced subtexts, making it a film by and for wide-awake grown-ups. (The acting, in what is essentially a duet, is so genuine and low-key it makes you sit forward and listen carefully.) The moist wilderness around the protagonists is unforgettably sensual, but it’s the men’s unspoken conflict, with the onslaught of time as much as with each other, that haunts your thoughts afterwards.
In many ways, it’s a tradition in film that began with Jean Renoir humane camaraderie, the plain beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance for his best films should and will peg you to those that know as a pretender. You can never have too much Renoir in your life, and, in what might be the season’s premier DVD launch for die-hard cinephiles, Lionsgate has released a lovely three-disc Renoir set, much-needed context for the well-known masterpieces (“Grand Illusion,” “Rules of the Game”) that should be permanent furniture in every educated person’s cultural boudoir. In addition to two rare featurettes (1927’s bizarre jazz-sci-fi “Charleston Parade” and 1928’s “The Little Match Girl,” both starring then-Mrs. Renoir Catherine Hessling), we get five features, from either end of the maestro’s career. Renoir’s first film, “Whirlpool of Fate” (1925), is a class-conscious melodrama, and “Nana” (1926) is a robust, roomy adaptation of Zola; both prefigure Renoir’s spacious use of mise-en-scène later in his talkies, and both star Hessling, a beady-eyed beauty the Renoir divorced, thankfully, in 1930. “La Marseillaise” (1938), smack in the middle of his richest period, is a fabulous, boisterous, joyous account of the French Revolution from the peasant’s point of view (Renoir’s always hunting for the most modest perspective).
“Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier” (1959), on the other hand, is a document from Renoir’s aging years, a strangely self-conscious made-for-TV version of the Jekyll/Hyde scenario that features famed pantomime Jean-Louis Barrault as the proper doctor and his bestial alter ego, played here as a medical-fuck-up mix between Lon Chaney’s ape man from “A Blind Bargain” and Harpo Marx. The capper is “The Elusive Corporal” (1962), Renoir’s last full-on feature film and a refreshing, buoyant compatriot-film to “Grand Illusion,” tracing the escape-happy travails of three French soldiers (led by the late Jean-Pierre Cassel) held as POWs in German camps during the Occupation. For Renoir, even the Nazi guards are people boggled by duty, amusement, guilt and love, and his essential humanism is, as it has always been in a public sphere that prefers cut-and-dried good and evil, a balm for the soul.
“Old Joy” (Kino) will be available on May 1st; The Jean Renoir Collection (Lionsgate) is now available on DVD.