Soul food on your screen

As American audiences lap up the contemplative non-story of the so-called New Age Western, 'Old Joy', Geoffrey Macnab asks why Hollywood is getting touchy-feely all of a sudden

It would be stretching it to suggest that the American film industry has embraced New Age philosophy or suddenly become eco-aware. Only two months ago, a report from the University of Los Angeles, California, pointed out that Hollywood was one of California's worst polluters. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that even the most mainstream film-makers are at least making token efforts to get in touch with their inner selves and protect the planet.

Mel Gibson's aggressive brand of pre-Vatican-II Catholicism may have caused dismay in many, but his latest feature, Apocalypto, plays like a New Age fable about the destructive power of a corrupt and imperialistic civilisation. The patter of New Age proselytising can be heard, too in Warner Bros' chirpy cartoon hit Happy Feet, with its message from the penguin population to humankind not to take all the fish. And the surprise about An Inconvenient Truth was not that Al Gore transformed himself from presidential hopeful to environmental guru, but that the studios were prepared to flex their marketing and distribution muscle for a documentary about global warming.

Film-makers have shown a surprising new yen for mysticism and magical thinking. Darren Aronofsky's latest feature The Fountain gives the terminal-illness melodrama a distinctly New Age, time-travelling spin. Aronofsky offers us Hugh Jackman as a 26th-century Buddha meditating on the loss of his beloved wife centuries before.

Indie film-makers, working on tiny budgets, are veering off in even more oblique directions. Witness the spate of folksy and offbeat movies - often with a spiritual undertow - about loners going back to nature. Werner Herzog's extraordinary, double-edged documentary Grizzly Man featured the ill-fated Timothy Treadwell, a hippy eco-campaigner with a yearning to get in touch with his primal self.

Among the characteristics of New Age movies is that they don't, necessarily, have to be about very much. One of the pleasures of Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy is that is that it isn't encumbered with anything much in the way of a plot. The director calls it a "New Age western". Two hippy types - old friends now in their thirties - spend a weekend on a camping trip in the woods. The premise - a pair of feckless city types adrift in the deep, dark woods - suggests that this might turn into a horror film or a Deliverance-style yarn about men surviving by summoning up their primal instincts. But no bears eat them. No rednecks taunt them. Nor - though they camp in the dark - do they have any Blair Witch-style experiences. "It has the contemplative power of Buddhist meditation," one critic has written of Old Joy. That is hardly a recommendation for Saturday night entertainment. Nonetheless, audiences in the US have warmed to Reichardt's story while the film has received glowing reviews.

In the past, movies in which nothing happened used to be the preserve of the avant-garde. Old Joy is in a very different register. Reichardt's inspiration is as much Henry Thoreau's famous, 19th-century back-to-nature primer, Walden, as it is experimental cinema of the 1960s. There are no big emotional set-pieces or plot resolutions. The men go on their camping trips - and then they return. Nonetheless, there is plenty going on beneath the surface. "As much as these men are 35-year-old progressive liberals with alternative lifestyles, at the end of the day they have male competitiveness, even if that competitiveness is about saying, 'I am more open than you are,'" the director says of the hidden currents in her film.

The film can be read as a satire about two lost liberals who can't accept that the world doesn't live up to their ideals. It's also a meditation on friendship. The bearded, wild-looking Kurt is a mercurial figure with a short temper. Mark can't help fretting about his wife. The two appear to be bosom buddies but their lives are dragging them apart from one another. What neither says - but which is implied throughout - is the dawning realisation that perhaps now they don't have anything in common at all. Meanwhile, on the car radio, the announcers are talking about the Iraq war.

Other recent New Age-style movies include Phil Morrison's Junebug (in which Will Oldham also appears and which was released in the UK last year) and Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9. Like Old Joy, Junebug has an intimate and slow-burning storytelling style. A southern family drama, it too eschews big set pieces or plot revelations in favour of low-key observation. Other film-makers might have satirised the eccentric, small-town protagonists with their quaint customs and ole' boy southern accents. Morrison, however, treats his characters with delicacy and sympathy. His interest is as much in the spiritual awakening of his protagonist - a preppy art dealer hoping to sign a primitive painter for her big city gallery - as it is in any particular plot point.

Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 is largely set aboard a whaling ship. With its mysticism, its hypnotic music, its references to eastern religion, and its sequences of Barney and his partner Bjork embracing and cutting away at each other's flesh, the film seems at least partly informed by New Age beliefs.

The upsurge now in New Age movies is hardly a shock. As film-makers begin to fret about war, the threat of environmental catastrophe and consumerism running rampant, it is hardly surprising that they want to get in touch with their spiritual sides, or to seek refuge in the woods.

'Old Joy' is out on 26 January