Thursday, 1 October 2009

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Dream a little dream

As the joke goes about Woodstock: If you remember it, you weren't there. On a more serious and bleak note: If it is seared into your cultural consciousness as a mythical feel-good event, chances are you weren't born then.

While not a direct indictment of the 1960s, Ang Lee's adaptation of the reactionary melodrama The Ice Storm (1997) depicts the social and existential aftermath that followed the bursting of the decade-long dream. We are not surprised at its reception in the US: when wide-eyed optimism, social liberation, and activism fail to solve any of the world's problems, the social pendulum swings back into reactionary conservatism. The backlash guarantees that even 'decent liberals', in very embarrassing attempts to gain credibility, have to badmouth the decade and engage in wholesale character assassination of the Left, SDS, flower children, hippies, et al. In short: commemorating Woodstock, Stonewall, the sexual and chemical liberation, love and peace - all this is a lost cause in American cultural politics.

But don't tell that to Ang Lee. Lee was still in a Taiwanese middle school when Woodstock kicked off, but he certainly has a good impression of the decade and its flower children. If The Ice Storm was a downer on the 60s, this movie tells us what the decade stood for and the hope it held out to a generation.

The very modest Ang Lee shies away from recreating Woodstock in Taking Woodstock. In the interest of diminishing disappointments, let me forewarn that what you get in Taking Woodstock is the making of Woodstock. You won't get a re-creation of the legendary festival itself. There will be no documentary footage or re-enactments of the now-legendary performances by Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan does not appear as himself. You will not see the stage or the crowds at the stage.

Instead, what you'll get is the the organisers' misadventures in getting the festival up and running, from inception to cleaning up, almost like a reality show done as a feature film. There are plenty of boo-boos, close shaves and pure mayhem to provide the laughs: recurring gags feature closeted protagonist Eliot Tiber who gives up his big city life, returning to save his very eccentric parents' decrepit motel from going down, his avaricious money-pinching mom's antics, and a local theatre company with a penchant for public streaking. And that's just for starters. Who would've thought Ang Lee had a healthy sense of humour?

Lee instead builds the festival from the ground up, from the perspectives of not just the organisers or the local community but the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who went there, got caught in the traffic gridlock, ended up miles from the stage, and turned the music festival into a good-natured, sprawling picnic, carnival, and camp site. I am told Lee was impressed that this beyond critical mass of counter-cultural youth did not spark a riot - this movie conveys that impressiveness and I think could go some way to rehabilitate the cultural memory of the 60s.

What Ang Lee brings to this retelling of Woodstock is not just his non-judgemental respect for the decade and its actors, but his treatment of Woodstock as one of those logistical nightmares - say a Chinese wedding banquet. It is perhaps from this cultural perspective that Lee treats his comic characters with equal reverence and concentrates on the celebrants who were there for more than just the music itself. The man understands that Woodstock wasn't really a music festival but something far greater, something whose meaning was collaboratively created by the majority who came but never got to see Janis Joplin, Jimmi Hendrix, or Bob Dylan.