Phenomenology and Its Creation and Exploration of Environment in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy
Ana Hoppert Flores
Old friends Mark and Kurt drive away from their industrial urban center into the Oregon forests
Film scholars have long observed and studied the capacity of phenomenology to create an immersive cinematic world. But what is the effect when a film uses this approach to bring attention to cinematic ideas that viewers encounter regularly and are already familiar with? Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) is a film that explores this question by focusing on the interactions between human characters and their environment, contextualizing these interactions within the viewer’s own reality. The film follows Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), two old friends reconnecting after some time, on their journey to the Bagby Hot Springs in Oregon. The film’s use of environmental aesthetics creates a cinematic world, not unlike our own, whose landscapes feel in dialogue with both the film’s diegetic inhabitants and the viewer. While Old Joy veers from the traditional structure of an environmental film, its narrative calls the viewer to action nonetheless. By contending that the environment is in an ongoing conversation with humans, whether they are aware of this or not, Reichardt’s film reveals how the state of the landscape reflects the eroding state of Mark and Kurt’s relationship, which is further emphasized by the dialogue, communication, and silence between them.
We must first define the concepts of phenomenology (including its relationship with mood and the viewer) and ecocinema. Phenomenological studies concerning cinema revolve around the viewer’s embodied experience while watching a film. The ambiguity of film phenomenology is an aspect that is generally agreed upon, which Jenny Chamarette corroborates when describing it as “the study of things as they appear in the world” or our perceptions and experiences “in the now” (312). Theorist Vivian Sobchack elaborates upon this concept when explaining that the goal of phenomenology is to “address the ‘thickness’ of human experience” (3-4). By bringing the term “thickness” into the conversation, Sobchack opens up the space for other elements that comprise film phenomenology, like texture, mood, atmosphere, and sound.
The effect of mood on the viewer has been observed by Robert Sinnerbrink, whose writing on “emotional convergence” explores how viewers see and relate to different types of characters and narratives in film (4-6). In his piece “Stimmung: Exploring the Aesthetics of Mood,” Sinnerbrink calls upon Greg M. Smith’s theory of mood and describes the way that it acts as an “invitation” for the viewer to feel, which they are free to accept or reject (5). Sinnerbrink ultimately brings the idea of mood and world-making together by stating that “moods … contribute to the aesthetic composition of a cinematic world—which is to say how well that world is achieved” (154). Filmic aspects like these ultimately contribute to a film’s capacity to act as a standalone entity that can interact, perceive, and be in dialogue with its viewer, meaning that the film-watching experience is not solely limited to the viewer. This then opens the possibility for a phenomenological relationship between the film and the viewer, which can be studied both as a streamlined experience where the film and viewer are seen as one or as broken down in parts, focusing either on the film or the viewer separately.
Old Joy’s genre only emphasizes this commonly overlooked relationship between the film and the viewer, bringing it to the forefront of the viewer’s attention. Ecocinema, as defined by Oxford Bibliographies, is the “interplay among film, ecology, and the human mind” (“Ecocinema”), in other words, how a film’s portrayal of the environment serves as a means to reveal something about us, the viewers. While the idea of whether “the negative affects” related to environmental crises seen in such films always promote an environmentalist agenda is one heavily debated (Uhlin 287) and will be expanded upon later, it is largely agreed upon that films within ecocinema generally focus on some aspect of the environment and the viewer’s inherent role in it.
The environmental aesthetics seen in Old Joy are introduced early on in the film and contribute to crafting a world that viewers can feel while drawing upon phenomenology and its various elements, like atmosphere, mood, and sound, to do so. An instance of these elements working together occurs when Mark and Kurt take a stop off of the road and look at the map to find where they are in relation to the hot springs. The scene begins with an extreme long shot of Mark’s car on the far side of the road and the right side of the frame with its hazard lights on. The road cuts diagonally across the screen, appearing wider on the right side of the frame and narrower on the left. Evergreen trees surround nearly all sides of the frame, and the film’s lighting reflects that of the landscape—dark, muted, and hazy from the fog. The damp, heavy feeling in this shot is partly attributed to what the viewer sees as well as how this image corroborates the narrative established in the past few minutes—Mark and Kurt are lost.
Here, the darkness and haziness of the forest all play a part in creating the scene’s atmosphere by underscoring and contributing to a sense of surrounding. Graig Uhlin explores the idea of the environment helping to generate atmosphere when describing landscapes as “having a mood” (282) and arguing that atmosphere infiltrates within but also surrounds and “envelops the assembled elements” within a frame (281). Even though the viewer is already aware of Mark and Kurt’s dilemma, the visual components in this establishing shot raise the stakes in a way that can be seen, and in turn, felt.
While visual techniques contribute to world-making, and therefore mood and atmosphere-making within a film, the soundscape ultimately bridges together image and feeling. To grasp the full effect of the sound design of this establishing shot, one must consider the sounds heard from the shot immediately preceding it: a point-of-view shot consisting of the soft diegetic sounds of Mark’s running car and the non-diegetic melody of individual piano notes that seem to blend together as soon as they emerge. The sharp cut from this shot to the aforementioned establishing shot is emphasized by a change in sound; while the piano notes from the previous shot continue to bleed into the next, the second shot is devoid of the sound of the car, and the soundtrack is instead underscored by the chirping of crickets. With the help of the ambient noise resulting from the absence of the sound of the running car, the notes that have melded together from the last shot sound like an other-worldly aura.
This aura makes space for the two slowly-played piano notes in this new scene, which are removed from the rest of the earlier melody and in turn suggest a sense of displacement or loneliness, before Kurt’s voice breaks through and the shot ends. The mood created by the soundscape in this scene is reminiscent of the aura felt in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979); the blended underscoring notes resemble the rumble created by the faraway train most distinctly heard in Stalker’s opening scene, and a heavy-feeling space is shown where different diegetic sounds are heard, but not seen. Unlike the traveling trio in the 1979 film, Mark and Kurt can better hear and understand their surroundings once they stop moving and are within a quiet place or a zone of sorts. While this nuanced understanding of the environment never comes full circle for Mark and Kurt, they, like the Stalker, Professor, and the Writer from Stalker, are viscerally affected by the mood and atmosphere that is created in part by the sound in their respective shots, whether they realize it or not.
As Sinnerbrink states in his piece, mood opens up, sustains, modulates, and transfigures cinematic worlds, and it continues to sustain the emptiness and tension felt through sound in a scene when Kurt takes a hit of marijuana while waiting for Mark to return to the car. The shot shows a medium close-up of Kurt from behind; Kurt takes the majority of the space on the right side of the frame, and the steering wheel balances this by taking up space on the left side. The soundscape includes the diegetic sounds of the crickets, Kurt’s breathing, and Mark’s steps as he walks away from the car. Though the lack of dialogue between the two characters borders on the edge of uncomfortable given the context of the scene, the tension is broken by the sound of Mark’s ringing phone and Kurt’s voice calling for Mark’s attention. Mark’s conversation is heard for a few seconds before he walks out of earshot, reducing the soundscape to Kurt’s breathing and movements, as well as the crickets and nature sounds around him. This soundscape is sustained for about a minute, and though Mark’s voice comes in in the latter half, the longevity of this take and the amount of time the viewer sits in relative silence allows for the tension and anxiety created earlier in the scene to be understood and felt. Mood and sound in this shot lend themselves to world-revealing rather than creating; they lend themselves to showing the physical effects they have helped create to the viewer.
The last two mood and atmosphere-heavy instances in this scene are heavily dependent upon the image. The first occurs right after Mark hangs up from the call described above: he returns to the car, and his face comes into a ready frame through a close-up. Despite the fact that his face takes up the most space in this shot, it is the wisps of smoke, likely from Kurt, coming from the left side of the frame that generate a feeling of other-worldliness. Mark then steps to the left of the frame to enter the car, inadvertently leaning into the smoke-heavy side of the frame. The use and visual of smoke in this scene validates Sinnerbrink’s argument that mood can be “concerned with the expressive aspects of the image” (149), as the heavy feeling created by the fog and the haziness previously seen in the landscape’s background is now both felt and visible in the foreground by the smoke.
Mark and Kurt make their way deeper into the natural environment on their way to the idyllic Bagby Hot Springs
It is the last shot when Mark and Kurt drive away from the zone-like space they have inhabited which is likely the most phenomenological in the scene. The shot mimics the extreme long shot used to establish this scene, giving Mark and Kurt the space to drive off into the left side of the frame. Once the two have left, their surroundings appear untouched, as if nothing had been there in the first place. Although this shot follows a logical thought process—the car has left, so it is no longer there—the way in which the camera lingers on the landscape conveys the idea that Mark and Kurt have left a different world. This lingering orients the spectator and clues them in on this by showing the landscape in its untainted state, devoid of cars and humans. Not only does this scene convey the isolation and tension felt by Mark and Kurt through phenomenology, and therefore mood, environment, sound, and atmosphere, but it creates a world for the viewer to experience and explore these emotions alongside the characters.
Through its contributions to world-making, the concept of film phenomenology validates landscapes as entire, separate entities. This, in turn, allows the environment to be in dialogue with its diegetic inhabitants, Mark and Kurt, and with the viewer. Both parties involved in these interactions are affected by the other, whether or not they recognize it. If the environment in Old Joy is considered through Mark and Kurt’s point of view, it is likely that it does not amount to much more than a sad background for their trip until they reach the hot springs. While the environment is seen trying to engage in conversation with the two throughout the film, these moments are most prevalent when the characters are driving.
One such attempt at communication occurs when Mark and Kurt pull into the hot springs parking lot. A two-shot from outside of the car reveals the two friends on the other side of the windshield. The reflection from the clouds in the sky and the view that it creates on the windshield obscure Mark and Kurt from the spectators’ view. The two are oblivious to the sky and shadows of the trees above; Kurt even points out the trail to the springs through the windshield, completely missing the environment and its attempt to touch and connect right in front of them. Their position in their own fabricated world literally and metaphorically inhibits them from having the capacity to engage in this present conversation, making them more inclined to spark a conversation with the aspects of nature that intrigue them instead.
In this shot, Mark and Kurt’s experience varies significantly from the viewer’s experience in seeing the events play out. Not only is the viewer in a position to see the reflections on the windshield, but they also have a vantage point over the situation—they can see this attempt at dialogue happening while also engaging with the greater dialogue occurring between themselves and the film. The inherent awareness that the viewer has over the characters in the scene allows them to learn from the interaction that they are observing, granting them the opportunity to become aware of their own spectatorship and side in the conversation that is happening between the environment of the film and them. By showing this conversation through a two-shot—an almost objective point of view—the film elicits the viewer to engage with what they are seeing on screen, and then reflect beyond its immediate narrative context. The viewer’s awareness and potential to act upon what they see is recognized by Christian Metz when speaking on viewership and the perspective that the viewer takes when watching a film. He argues that phenomenology points to a sort of idealized viewer, one who can recognize and “master the givens of his or her perception” (Hanich, 26). The viewer’s ability to differentiate themselves from the film in this moment of attempted communication between the environment and the characters in the diegetic world exemplifies this argument.
The idea that the viewer is capable of achieving and maintaining this level of awareness throughout a film is expanded upon by theorist Adrian J. Ivakhiv when he explores the future of cinema, and how it relates to the change the viewer sees in their own society when removed from the film. Ivakhiv first defines cinema as “present[ing] a universe whose outer circumference is always expanding” (328) and describes it as a “form of morphogenesis,” meaning that it is constantly changing (334). He brings the concept of spectatorship into this when explaining that humans, or the viewers, are transformed in the process of moving through different worlds that are morphing, both within the film-watching context and outside of it (334). This inherent change brought onto the viewer by the sheer willingness to engage with the film points to the phenomenological idea that film can touch, or affect, viewers both consciously and subconsciously, referring back to the importance of feeling in film-watching in the first place.
Though it is important to note the film’s inevitable effect on the viewer, exploring the instances that prompt viewers to feel, recognize their feeling, and then do something about these feelings allows Old Joy to be considered in its entirety both a film and a piece of ecocinema. While the mood and atmosphere of the film construct a world that feels tangible to and is in constant conversation with the character and viewer, it ultimately reminds viewers of the impact that they have over their immediate environments and prompts them to do something about it. Reichardt’s choice in portraying humans’ relationships with the environment through conversation shows the negative effects that can result from a lack of dialogue. From an environmental view, they coincide with the idea that “climate change requires that humans use thought to grasp and create the world through the tool of language,” as stated by Eva Räpple when she argues for the use of communication and art to better understand and therefore address the issue of climate change in our society (15). The negative effects mentioned here are seen both in the state of the environment, and the state of Mark and Kurt’s relationship as portrayed in the film. The depictions of these two entities in the film reveal the importance of being aware of one’s role in the conversations one partakes in, whether interpersonal or environmental.
The general relationship between humans and the environment is seen literally through Old Joy’s landscape, particularly in the area where Mark and Kurt go camping. While the site is dark when the two arrive, its littered surface shows how it has been tainted by humans. Although Mark and Kurt do not seem to mind the wasteland that serves as their stay, their strained conversation around the campfire, which is punctuated by longing looks and extended pauses, is an example of anthropomorphized environmental distress. Graig Uhlin speaks on the atmosphere created by environmental degradation in film, stating that a “trashed landscape not only disrupts the restorative effect of nature but also signals a particular feeling of loss” (285). This idea then can be used to explain how a feeling created by the environment can affect characters to a point of embodiment. Uhlin shares how environmental crisis gathers around “feelings of sorrow, depression, and exhaustion” and how “ecological collapse prefigures,” or comes before, “emotional collapse” (282), which is exactly what is portrayed in Old Joy. The somber nature of Mark and Kurt’s campsite surroundings is not wholly portrayed until the morning. The montage showing the assorted man-made objects left to mar the landscape coupled with the foggy haziness of the scene’s foreground and the two friends’ silent glances all contribute to what theorist Nicole Merola describes as “environmental melancholy,” which occurs when the feeling of grief “encompasses nonhumans and ecological processes” (Uhlin 289).
The precarious state of the environment continues to be mirrored by Mark and Kurt’s relationship, silent exchanges, prolonged eye contact, and lack of dialogue throughout the film; it is not until the two reach the hot springs that this tension reaches a climax and is finally somewhat resolved. The hot springs have a mysterious zone-like quality that references the “zone” in Tarkovsky’s Stalker through its detailed soundscape and its general secludedness that enables the two friends to connect in a way that they hadn’t been able to prior. Mark and Kurt’s long-held conversation culminates when they touch; the two are so far removed from one another that they resort to touch to express what they have to say. The fact that the conversation they have through touch is one that they both seem to fully grasp epitomizes the concepts of phenomenology, feeling, and sensation conveyed through the film and brings them full circle.
The motivations behind such portrayals of negative environmental affects in environmental film remain contested. While Graig Uhlin argues that the portrayal of “negative affects” related to the environmental crisis does not always result in the promotion of an environmentalist agenda (287), I would argue the opposite—showing environmental crisis through the medium of film will always elicit the beginning of an environmentally-informed conversation between the film and the viewer, it is just up to the viewer to become aware of this conversation and respond. Phenomenology is “an immersive confrontation with an outside force or world that can bring us out of ourselves” (Warner), which is exactly what Old Joy achieves in doing through its specific use of environmental and phenomenological aesthetics.
When thinking about the future of cinema as a whole and ecocinema as a genre, phenomenology, its shortcomings, and its contributions to world-making in cinema must be considered. The fact that some theorists discredit phenomenology for its ambiguity while others argue that its limits have been established too soon is exciting because it points to the idea that it has yet to be explored to its fullest extent. Phenomenology’s range in film allows it to expand upon aspects specific to the film medium like world-building, feeling, and spectatorship and its refusal to be defined as one idea means that it will remain relevant for as long as cinema continues to live on. Old Joy is an example of phenomenology being stretched beyond its previously explored limit in the way that it brings the film, its characters and environment, and the viewer, together as one.
Chamarette, Jenny. “Embodying Spectatorship.” The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender, Routledge, 2017, pp. 311–312.
“Ecocinema.” Oxford Bibliographies, Oxford University Press, 2021, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791286/obo-9780199791286-0252.xml#obo-9780199791286-0252-div1-0008.
Ferencz-Flatz, Christian. “What Is Film Phenomenology?” Studia Phaenomenologica, edited by Julian Hanich, vol. 16, Romanian Society for Phenomenology, 2016, p. 26.
Ivakhiv, Adrian J. “Afterword: Digital Futures in a Biosemiotic World.” Ecologies of the Moving Image, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013, pp. 328–334.
Räpple, Eva Maria. The Environmental Crisis and Art. Lexington Books, 2019.
Sinnerbrink, Robert. “Stimmung: Exploring the Aesthetics of Mood.” Screen, 2012, pp. 149–153.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Phenomenology and the Film Experience.” The Address of the Eye, Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 3–4.
Uhlin, Graig. “Feeling Depleted.” Affective Ecocriticism, University of Nebraska Press , 2018, p. 287.
Warner, Rick. ENGL 680 Film Theory lecture, 19 October 2021, UNC Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill.