Friday, March 26, 2010
Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now
By Edward Copeland
It's an old joke among some baby boomers (of which I'm very proudly not a member) that if they are of the right age and background, they all claim to have attended Woodstock in 1969. Of course, we know this simply isn't mathematically possible, but I think what confused the issue was Michael Wadleigh's remarkable Oscar-winning documentary of the event, released on this date in 1970. I think it's the pervasiveness of the images from that film that accounts for the collective memory of a generation.
Woodstock functions as a true documentary, it documents an event as well as a time and a place. For film buffs, there also is a bit of movie history at work as well. It earned film editor Thelma Schoonmaker her first Oscar nomination while she worked alongside a young assistant director and editor named Martin Scorsese, which began a collaboration that continued through every feature Scorsese has made as a director. It also earned an Oscar nomination for sound in addition to its documentary feature win. Something must have been in the air at the Academy that year: the original song score Oscar went to The Beatles for the documentary Let It Be. In the process of chronicling Woodstock, more than 100 miles of films were exposed and 16 cameras were employed, which seems as if it's that an amazingly small number given how much is captured on screen as the images hover, float and glide above and through the crowds, around the stage, take side trips into the neighboring town and that's not even mentioning the infamous split screens (sometimes divided into three).
While the movie's reputation is that of a concert film, it's often the nonmusical portions that prove most fascinating. The film opens with one Sidney Westerfield, owner of an antique tavern in Mongaup Valley, N.Y., expressing amazement about the event, when 50,000 concertgoers and nearly a million people who showed up. He even had nothing but praise for the young people, finding them nothing but polite. The congestion and traffic tie-ups didn't even bother him, even though that meant he couldn't get out for food and had to live on corn flakes for two days. It was "too big for the world," Westerfield said. In fact, the film was so big that despite its reputation and acclaim, Wadleigh added unused footage (including a performance by Janis Joplin) and released a director's cut which is now the only version of the film available. It's just as great as the original but the changes are almost imperceptible except for the epitaph at the end listing all those who have died since Woodstock was held in August 1969.
Since I was a mere infant at the time, learning of the turbulent late '60s through history and other documentary artifacts, it's always surprising to see how peaceful and what a lack of conflict occurred during the Woodstock Festival, which took place just a little more than a year after the chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. While Vietnam is certainly present, the peace part of the event predominates as much as the music and the few citizens in the nearby town who complain seem to be the exception rather than the rule. All of the other adults seem to find these mostly long-haired young people taking over their area "like an army invading a nation" charming and polite. The businesspeople welcomed the economic boost, others reveled in delight at the politeness of the young people and even took offense when one young man referred to himself as a freak, believing he was being critical of himself. "From what I've heard from the outside sources for many years I was very, very much surprised and I'm very happy to say we think the people of this country should be proud of these kids, not withstanding the way they dress or the way they wear their hair, that's their own personal business," one man said, "but their, their inner workings, their inner selves, their, their self-demeanour cannot be questioned; they can't be questioned as good American citizens." The official who said that was the police chief. Given the lack of civility that has developed in this country over issues as innocuous as health care, I wonder if these sort of reactions would even be possible today. Would people have welcomed and complimented large groups of Iraq war protesters attending a concert like Woodstock like this if one had been held? Somehow, I doubt it.
Max Yasgur, owner of the farm where the concert was held
It took nine months of planning to bring off the concert at a cost of a couple of million dollars and it began as a paid event but as it became a cultural event and young people trampled the fences, the organizers decided to let it be a free event and take the monetary loss, deciding that the people's welfare and the music were "a helluva lot more important than the dollar." Imagine something like that occurring in the Age of TicketMaster. The original crowd expectation ranged from 50,000 to 200,000 but no one has ever nailed down an exact count, with somewhere north of half a million people being the best guess. With interstates tied up, artists had to be flown in by helicopter. With so many cameras roaming the grounds, you get a lot of great nonsequitur images: nuns flashing peace signs; an interview by kazoo; a naked guy standing in the crowd and dancing with a sheep. One of the film's most compelling moments is a lengthy interview with a young couple, though they might not call themselves a couple. "We ball and everything but we're not in love or anything," the girl explains. The boy gets deeper, speaking of his immigrant father who doesn't understand his aimlessness in America, the land of opportunity. Why aren't you playing the game? his father wants to know. The sincere young man displays a degree of insight when he says that most people at Woodstock are looking for an answer when there really isn't one and they are all sort of lost.
The sincerity of the participants is why the film holds up so well 40 years later after all the mockery and parodies of the 1960s youth culture and mindset. Even the moments that lend themselves to laughter are unmistakably real as the P.A. announcements (somewhat reminiscent of those in the same year's fictional film, Robert Altman's MASH) warning concertgoers to steer clear of the brown acid but later adding that the acid isn't poison, it's just bad and if one felt the need to experiment, it's best to try just half a tab. Then when a downpour of rain turns the field into a muddy mess, there are some conspiratorial-minded attendees who are convinced that helicopters they see hovering overhead are really the government seeding the clouds to spoil their party. It's ironic, because the Army National Guard helicopters that were there were brought medical teams to help with anyone who need medical aid (a baby was born at the festival after all). Pretty incredible considering that this was during Vietnam and the Nixon Administration. Compare that to how slow the response was to a national disaster such as Hurricane Katrina but a hand was lent to natural opposition attending a concert. The times, they have-a-changed, and not for the better. Could Nixon have been the real compassionate conservative?
As for the film's techniques itself, it is the use of split screens that are understandably most celebrated. Unlike films such as Mike Figgis' Time Code, the use of the device comes off appropriate instead of as a gimmick or a distraction. In fact, often the juxtapositions prove quite perfect as in one section where the left half shows an interview with a concert organizer talking quite seriously about what's going on while on the right an anonymous couple prepares to lay down in tall grass to make love. The device is used extensively during the musical acts, showing the same performer from different angles or different members of the band or contrasting the performer with the crowd enjoying the show. You get different ways of seeing Crosby, Stills and Nash perform instead of a simple three shot. One thing I had forgotten was how new an act the trio was. "This is the second time we've ever played in front of people, man, we're scared shitless," Stephen Stills told the crowd. Even though Woodstock is a long film, there still isn't enough room to include all the musical acts who participated or all the songs they played because the movie is first and foremost a documentary and that's what makes it superb. As the festival did, it begins with Richie Havens, it includes a young Arlo Guthrie (whom I never noticed before, but bears a striking resemblance to Bob Geldof), Joan Baez speaks of her imprisoned husband and federal inmates hunger striking his imprisonment over the draft, Country Joe McDonald and the Fish perform (and the film adds a sing-along bouncing ball and lyrics), Joe Cocker does what he does and makes John Belushi's spasmodic impression seem like less of a parody, The Who hits the stage and Pete Townshend forgoes smashing his guitar in favor of giving it as a gift to the audience and, for some reason, Sha Na Na sings "At the Hop." To close the festival, Jimi Hendrix shows his absolute mastery of the guitar with a unique rendition of the "Star-Spangled Banner" which then blends seamlessly into "Purple Haze" as the camera captures the messy aftermath once everyone had left.
Woodstock, both the event and the documentary, was a once in a lifetime occurrence. There have been similar attempts such as the massive charity concert Live Aid, but those were all so prepackaged that they lacked the certain improvisational feel that came with the Woodstock Nation. Of course, that didn't stop them from trying to spawn a sequel. If followups are good for Hollywood and Broadway and books, why not try to re-create a once-in-a-lifetime zeitgeist, which is precisely what they attempted on the 25th anniversary in 1994, broadcast on MTV of course. At the time, I dreamed of making a documentary of the event, though it would have been of a particularly satirical bent. I envisioned a three-way split screen with a featured artist in the center, a twentysomething decked out in the proper corporate wardrobe and drinking the right sponsor's beverage on the right and an aging baby boomer on the left, watching at home on television while working out on his or her StairMaster. Alas, I didn't make that film. It's difficult to make the same history twice, and it shouldn't be tried, but it's a great thing Michael Wadleigh and his crew were there in August 1969 to record a lasting document of what happened on Max Yasgur's farm. The documentary already resides in the Library of Congress' collection of historic films and it is great for future generations to have this movie to learn from and look back on. The music isn't too bad either.