I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships lately: how they evolve and devolve, then reappear for a fleeting moment in time. What of the friendships that linger for decades, the pairings that don’t necessarily make sense but have sustained a connective thread despite life’s curveballs? What about the emotional connections that last no matter how hard we try and forget them?
Unsuspected camaraderie and companionship is a main concern for Alexander Payne and Kelly Reichardt, two quintessential American directors with new films in 2011 (The Descendants and Meek’s Cutoff) who’ve previously explored the difficulties and epiphanies of friendship. While Payne and Reichardt couldn’t be more different stylistically, they are kindred spirits when it comes to theme. The connection can be seen in their respective road films Sideways (2004) and Old Joy (2006), where both filmmakers examine the resentment, guilt, and loyalty hiding underneath the facades of male friendships facing imminent change.
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In Sideways, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) partake in a planned jaunt up to the Santa Barbara wine country for one last hurrah before the latter gets married. A similar scenario is more improvisational in Old Joy, with free-spirit Kurt (Will Oldham) inviting his old friend and soon-to-be-father Mark (Daniel London) on a spur of the moment overnight camping trip to Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Both films equate time spent together with questions of purpose, and ultimately the re-evaluation of self, yet each travels down unique narrative roads to reach these conclusions.
Opening Shots of Static Self-Contentment:
The opening act of Sideways conveys Miles as a man anchored by crippling self-involvement. Already late to pick up Jack, Miles plays the role of a slug, taking his sweet time to get ready for the drive.
Old Joy opens with the chirping of birds, wind in the trees, and Mark meditating in his lush backyard. His self-imposed stasis is incredibly immersive, but no less self-involved than Miles’ unhurried morning routine.
The Feeling of the Road:
All road movies contain the “driving shot,” conveying the view of the road and surroundings as seen from the car. Sideways treats these moments as conventional transition points; this one above, with its straight-line sense of depth (enhanced by the tunnel), conveys Miles and Jack’s focus on the vineyard destinations ahead of them.
A similar image in Old Joy reveals the core stylistic difference between the two films, with lyricism and natural beauty coming from all directions. It suggests a landscape containing possibilities of experience, with an openness that exposes tensions in Mark and Kurt’s first day of travel as they begin to express themselves.
Depression in the Foreground:
Emotional cracks present themselves early in Sideways. Depressed and weathered, Miles vehemently repels Jack’s reckless vitality.
The campfire scene in Old Joy is even more evocative, unearthing a lifetime’s worth of sadness and uncertainty when Kurt confesses uncomfortable feelings about his broken friendship with Mark.
As Sideways continues, Miles and Jack spend less time together and are increasingly out of sync. In this disastrous golf game, both are literally swinging in different directions.
Reichardt is also concerned with how visuals convey emotional development. In a climactic hike to a remote hot springs, Mark and Kurt’s zigzagging movement around the fallen, crisscrossing tree trunks in the forest parallels the ragged state of their relationship.
Friendship in Space:
Payne’s layered use of space late in Sideways reveals the roller-coaster nature of Miles and Jack’s friendship. At the tail end of a sexual fiasco, the usually wild and vivacious Jack rests silently in the foreground. The perpetually somber Miles makes a mad dash for the car, finally an active participant in his own story, picking up Jack’s slack to clean up his mess. In one shot, Miles and Jack’s previously established roles flip-flop.
Reichardt isn’t as interested in traditional narrative storytelling, so depth-of-field and perspective in Old Joy become more about waiting and watching, one friend examining the other in moments of silence. When Mark exits the car after a long and arduous drive “to get some space,” Kurt is left alone to ponder his friend’s true emotional state from a distance.
While both films reveal long-gestating fissures plaguing each friendship, there are also moments of joy in togetherness. Miles and Jack share this moment of bliss with the women they desire, their group shrouded in the glow of dusk.
Even more interesting is the experience Kurt and Mark share at their final destination, an isolated hot springs. Togetherness culminates in a unexpected touch, yielding a momentary realization of trust.
Sideways ends just like it began: with a knock at the door. But this is opportunity knocking, not tragedy. Miles breaks his pattern of self-isolation and takes a chance on the future.
In contrast, the final moments of Old Joy are incredibly nuanced and saddening. Kurt wanders the dark streets looking for some kind of direction. Unlike Miles and Jack’s case, his friendship with Mark remains in limbo.
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