Saturday, August 29, 2009
Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock has garnered rather mixed reviews. But regardless of reviews, this movie is destined to succeed, because its target audience is the nostalgic and the envious, all of them revved up for this 2 hour romp into the romantic past. In these reviews, several misdemeanors are cited, including poor performances and general dullness, but the most ubiquitous criticism is that there is no concert to be seen. Yes, anyone who was helplessly hoping to relive the concert through Lee's camera lens will be sorely disappointed. I'll admit, part of me was hoping for this as well, but let's be honest. Why bother? Why bastardize the memory of three days of peace, love and music by commercializing them into a mainstream film? Perhaps this would have been apt, given the subject matter Lee explores, but I, for one, am just as happy he didn't try.
This not a film about Woodstock so much as it is about the climate of the 1960s. Not that I was there or anything, but I think in this regard, Lee does a fine job. Even while Lee takes moments to rejoice in the free spirit of the times, an undercurrent remains of all of the things the hippie movement attempted to circumvent, but could not inevitably avoid. Lee's film portrays a subtle criticism of the 1960s climate that mostly falls into a dichotomy between the communistic idealism of the hippies and the unavoidable capitalistic leanings of those who stood to benefit from the concert. At the outset, these two forces collide as Michael Lang (Jonathon Groff) and his company attempt to make a monetary deal that will allow the Woodstock concert to continue. These free-spirited flower children create an oasis amongst the conservative townspeople who threaten to evict them.
The whole movie represents Elliot's journey. He begins as an outlier, and is soon baptised into the 60s culture. This journey becomes literal as he moves from his parents home into the crowd of beaded, muddied, peace toting young people. The baptism becomes literal as Elliot takes acid for the first time and emerges from his tent in full-on hippie garb. In one of the several scenes depicting the long, crowded walk to the concert fields, Lee's camera swings over the makeshift stands that have been erected by the road, food stands and the like, all trying to capitalize off the concert by charging for corn and lemonade. Once he reaches the fields, however, everything is communal. Capitalism and selfish motives are forever nipping at the heels of freedom and love. Elliot's movement serves as a pilgrimage, but it is inevitably an aborted one. He never makes it to the mecca, the concert itself, though he tries several times. He remains on the edge, halted by drug-use and mud-bathing. In the end, it is the electric current running through the mire that prevents Elliot from finishing his journey.
By the end, the idealism in the film has run out. The vision we are left with is a muddy, abandoned field. "Beautiful," Michael notes, as the camera takes in the apocalyptic view. He then tells Elliot to follow him to San Francisco, where he alludes to having his hand in preparations for the notorious Altamont concert. There is a detectable note of irony here, as the free-spirited youngsters seem blinded by their idealism. "Far out," the friends note.
Another theme that floats hazily through the film is the idea of perspective. As Tisha (Mamie Gummer, also Meryl Streep's daughter!) puts it, perspective is what divides us, and kills love (yes, the truth speaks). The translation of her dreamy, zen-speak is that we must find a way to combine perspectives in order to commune, to love freely. In a way, the film is all about perspective. For one thing, we are never given a perspective that will allow us to see the concert (We are treated to Elliot's acid trip, though). The split-screens, which are an homage to the documentary, also reflect on this notion. The viewer is taken a step backward, out of Elliot's view and into an omniscient one, where nudity and smoke and sexin' are rampant. These parallax views are prominent during the construction of the concert, when hopes are high. They disappear by the end of the film.
There are other elements at play here. I haven't even touched on Elliot's Jewish immigrant parents, or his homosexuality, or the Vietnam War, but I'll leave that to someone else.
This is film is flawed, certainly. But it is not lacking merit in some areas. In conclusion, this movie might not be about what you think, but I might be reading too much into it. It is something I have been known to do. Probably, it depends on your perspective.