Thursday, September 3, 2009

Film: Taking Woodstock

I wasn’t there, but Taking Woodstock reminds me that quite a few people, half a million unique perspectives, witnessed that legendary weekend in 1969. And this seems to be the aim of director Ang Lee’s most recent release, though not by representing the endless characters that were there, but by clinging religiously to the perspective of one, finding the universe in protagonist Eliot Tiber's grain of sand. What results from this technique is a movie that often feels soft-spoken, where a historic moment is also the everyday moment, both momentous and meaningless, iconic and fleeting.

Taking Woodstock, an adaptation of Tiber’s memoir of the same name follows his efforts to make the famous festival happen. Eliot is a law school graduate who has turned his back on his urban lifestyle of twenty-something self discovery, lovers, liars and low income housing in the mythic New York City of the 60’s to save his seemingly helpless parents and their dead-end motel in the sleepy, out-dated town of White Lake in the New York Catskills. In a move that seems at once like an ingenious seizing of a rare opportunity and a complete stroke of dumb luck, Eliot makes a call and becomes the historical lynchpin that gives a final destination (his neighbors’ cow pastures) to the festival that was kicked out of the original, geographic Woodstock. The savvy, smooth talking, half-hippie, half-venture capitalists that make up the merry band of concert organizers descend upon White Lake (in a helicopter, no less), and the rest, as they say, is history.

What follows is exactly what you’d expect, and maybe a little of what you wouldn’t: small town bickering, black suit maneuvering, renovation, one-way transportation and lots and lots of people, waving peace signs, saying ‘far out,’ tripping on Acid, taking their clothes off and generally living up to the expectations of Woodstock (and the decade) that all of us who weren’t there seem to hold in some psychadelic scrapbook of the cultural subconscious. Amidst all the free-wheeling free love, is all the while Eliot, ensuring a nest-egg for his parents, playing peace-maker (only so well) with the neighbors and finally indulging in all the love, sex and music Woodstock seemed to embody to all those concert-goers. No matter the massive crowd, it is his story throughout. We never see Janis Joplin or Jimmy Hendrix, and when characters aren’t interacting with Eliot, they seem to drop off the face of the Woodstock universe. At times like these, one certainly feels like parts of the story are missing, and the viewer wonders what everyone else is doing. But in this limitation and struggle of curiousity, Lee seems to remind the viewer of how experience works. No matter how crucial the moment may be deemed later, in the continuous present, one only has their own perspective from which to see, and often that’s a limited one. This only becomes truly frustrating (and ineffective) when it seems parts of Eliot’s own story have been omitted. At one point in the film, he wakes up next to a man we have seen him flirting with and kissing in the bar, but Lee has neglected to portray any of the night before, when we may assume they entered the bed.

Taking Woodstock is certainly a different kind of cinematic experience, especially as it deals with a moment in time that is generally recognized as big, historic, consequential. The movie one might expect about Woodstock would build toward and celebrate a central climax: a musical performance, a romance or a conflict that threatens the whole festival.Taking Woodstock does have these elements, scattered throughout the film, but Lee does not stress one with more drama than the other, rather he gives each moment that passes an exact, conservative attention, creating a film that may be more like life as we live it than movies as we watch them, a story that gives a sense of the ordinary everyday, to the far out extraordinary of the retroactively decided historic.


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