Getting Reel
"Old Joy": Thoughts on Friendship in the MySpace Age
By Russell Brown
Oct 23, 2006

Back when Friendster was in its infancy and we were learning how social networking was going to work, an interesting phenomenon started to occur. Every few weeks, I would receive a request from someone I hadn't spoken to in years, asking to be added to their page. It seemed rude to say no, but slightly odd to say yes. After accepting the invitation, their picture would sit on my profile, but it wouldn't initiate any correspondence. Years later, looking at my page, their faces are still there, reminding me that we were, indeed, once friends. But it's a strange feeling, because I share nothing with them now, and wonder if I look as random to them on their page as they feel to me on mine. This is, of course, the general M.O. of the entire social networking revolution. Cruising around MySpace, you find characters who have thousands of friends, and you have to wonder if these people feel actually connected to anyone. It's a new type of interaction that I suspect anthropologists will study years from now: a form of connectedness that relies on the most fleeting connections. In the old days, you at least shared history with the individuals who requested to be your internet friends -- nowadays I receive requests from complete strangers with whom I have nothing in common, and the entire system grows increasingly ridiculous.

For me, it's both nostalgic and depressing to look at my Friendster page and see the graveyard of relationships that didn't stand the test of time. It's difficult to remember why some faded away, and in other cases I can immediately recall what went wrong. But, as I'm sure many have experienced, you can't remove the profiles from your list. Perhaps you don't want to be rude and let the other person know that, hey, we're just not friends anymore. Or maybe you don't mind the idea of letting the friend know, but you don't want to be the first one to admit it -- so the faces just sit there in a stalemate. Or maybe it's just laziness, and it's more effort -- emotionally and technologically -- than it's worth to update the page.

This dilemma of "what to do with former friends" is just one of the themes in Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, a film that captures so many human feelings and experiences in so few words and such a short running time that it seems to be almost unreal. The film follows Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), two pals and a (well-cast) dog on a camping trip to the Pacific Northwest. Once much closer, their lives have taken different paths: Mark is married with a baby on the way and Kurt is a vagabond/philosopher who hasn't made much of his adulthood and seems content to continue to float. Over the course of their trip, not much happens: They get lost, they smoke some pot, they find a natural hot-tub bath and relax -- it all seems pretty low key and easygoing.

And yet, at the same time, without actually "talking about it," the film manages to dramatize both the conflict and the closeness that is inherent in friendships that have lasted over many years. When Kurt discusses his career aspirations, you sense that Mark has heard it all before and knows it won't amount to anything -- and yet, he accepts his friend's wishes and, eyes secretly rolling, encourages him. Small antagonisms that have built up over the years begin to surface: Kurt's irritated at Mark's cellphone and responsibilities, and Mark's irritated at Kurt's lack of planning and disorganization. In perhaps the most telling moment, Kurt gives Mark an unwelcome back rub, and we recognize the moment when a friend wants us to "be cool and open your mind" to something that just isn't your speed.

The movie hinges on these familiar moments, and in so doing, conjures an entire history for these guys that we somehow intuit without being told. You sense the beginnings of their friendship, when Mark saw in Kurt a free spirit and Kurt recognized a willing disciple; their good times camping in the past when they were always on the same wavelength; the moment in their friendship when Mark realized that Kurt had nothing more to offer, and that he was tired of his eccentricities. All of this is planted in the imagination by their simple interactions in the present -- a creeping, intangible quality in the filmmaking that's difficult to detect when it's working its magic. But all of this is long in the past, and this trip is the final moment in an end that's slowly been coming for years.

As the story continues, you begin to wonder why we feel the need to grasp onto old friends and relive the glory from the past. For Kurt and Mark, it might've been a way to remember when times were better, when life hadn't taken its toll and anything was possible -- when Kurt's spontaneity and Mark's seriousness had the potential to result in great things. Perhaps that's what's toughest about the trip, that both men see themselves reflected in the other's shortcomings.

When they finally return to their lives, you know they will not repeat this ritual. The trip was a final stab to determine if there was anything left in what was once a solid friendship. And although no conflict actually occurred, you sense that they realize there's nothing left to teach each other, nothing left to enjoy together, nothing else to discuss. In a way, it feels like getting a request on the internet from a former friend. It's a test to see if there's anything there, and you accept as a way of saying, "yes, I felt something for you once," and leave it at that. And as Kurt and Mark realize, that's what toughest looking at those pictures on my Friendster page: There are few traces of the optimism and goodwill that once were in those relationships, and all that's left is a static image staring back at me, a ghost. 

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