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September 2, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
School’s back in session; new lessons have begun. Last weekend they were in history, a subject that becomes more relevant as you realize you’re becoming part of it.
History, explains the teacher, is groupthink. It takes research, it takes years to compile. To be sure, there are differences of opinion and new interpretations, but eventually it leads to agreement, more or less, about what happened.
People who actually witness history are called primary sources. For them, history is alive, made of memory. Memory isn’t groupthink; it belongs to each of us individually.
Memories are like little paintings we create in our minds. Sometimes they’re photorealistic; other times, impressionistic in broad strokes. How much of a memory is true and how much we’re making up is one of those mysteries we can never unravel.
Between the opening of Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” and last weekend’s tributes to Ted Kennedy filling TV screens, there was as much history and memory as the mind — and heart — could hold. It felt like standing at their intersection, the place where one merged into the other.
As opposed to critics dismissing Oscar-winner Lee’s revisiting of Woodstock for being a little slight — like there’s no there there — I enjoyed the sweet, gentle comedy for just that reason.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Elliot Tiber on the peripheral but pivotal role he played in the concert that changed the world, the closest Lee’s film gets to the music itself is hearing Richie Havens’ voice dimly over the far ridge, launching into a refrain of freedom to open the show.
Demetri Martin plays Elliott, a sensitive soul working in the shabby Bethel, N.Y., motel of his domineering mother (Imelda Staunton) and dying dad (Henry Goodman). Struggling to bring his homosexuality out of the closet, Elliott was previously known for organizing Bethel summer cultural festivals where he played albums on the lawn. But he happens to be in the right place at the right time —and, more importantly, to have a permit — to bring a proposed rock concert to Max Yasgur’s (Eugene Levy’s) dairy farm down the road.
How it all came together turns out to be a series of monumental accidents and coincidences. Part of the film’s fun is watching it connect the dots leading up to what would become a seminal moment in the history of a generation.
The whole thing was never more than one step from absolute chaos. That it didn’t turn into a monumental tragedy after 500,000 flower children descended on rural upstate New York reinforces belief in a very ’60s sort of cosmic harmony. Or maybe it’s just a contact high emanating from the screen.
For the millions of words, the shelves of books, the countless sociological dissertations — not to mention the recent 40th anniversary observances — Lee’s wry film suggests that there might have been less to Woodstock than meets the eye.
Apart from all the bodies, some clothed, some not, clogging the narrow country roads, overrunning the town, bathing in the lake, stretching their naive, stoned bliss all the way to the horizon, the “meaning” of the whole thing probably went no further than the logistics. It happened. The music was amazing — if you could hear it. There wasn’t food. There was barely shelter. It rained. And a half-million people lived to tell the tale … what they remember of it.
For all the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, the innocence remained. The “story” of Woodstock was more like a half-million stories, like the one of Elliot and his parents, that bumped into each other that weekend.
While “Taking Woodstock” pretty much stays away from the music (Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary’s been there, done that, won the Oscar), it still pulses with energy. Even before the hippies arrive, Lee observes the organizers and advance crew — led by the charismatic Jonathan Groff and his philosophical girlfriend Marnie Gummer — with bemusement that doesn’t miss a detail.
The film is also populated with wounded, lovable oddballs, from Emile Hirsch’s scarred Vietnam vet to Liev Schreiber’s cross-dressing ex-Marine to the resident theater troupe in the barn, adding nude scenes to every stage classic they touch.
It’s in the details, with Lee often dividing the screen for a kaleidoscopic effect, that “Taking Woodstock” shines. The parts were greater than their sum — which might be the legacy of the ’60s as well.
And watching the film amidst all the Kennedy tributes last weekend added to that sense of legacy.
Despite Ted Kennedy’s passionate assurances through an inspiring life of service and courage that the dream will never end, it brought a few tears to remember that chapters of history do.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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