Archive for September, 2009
Taking Woodstock (2009)
Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, and Liev Schrieber.
I’m not sure what they were thinking, but I thought that opening this movie on the weekend after the Woodstock concert anniversary was one of the worst scheduling decisions I’ve seen in a while. Not the weekend of, the natural choice, or even a week or two weeks beforehand, but the weekend after the anniversary, after it had been hyped up and picked over and commentated upon and it had gotten really old even for the people who thought that the defining concert of the free-love era was worth commemorating. It’s like opening a Christmas movie a week after the holiday — hey, we’re really over that now, the moment passed, and I don’t want to see it.
So, I didn’t go to Taking Woodstock when it opened, even though as a new Ang Lee film I had some interest earlier in the summer in doing so; I’m also a mild fan of Demetri Martin and his stand-up comedy (though I was not enthralled by his short-lived Comedy Central series, despite how very earnest it was in its intent to entertain), so having him in the lead role was not in itself a deterrent. I was just so tired by the hooplah surrounding the 40th anniversary that I didn’t feel like it, and I’m sure the vast moviegoing public shared my sentiment, which is too bad, since the movie is rather low key and sweet and deserved a more fitting opening weekend than it got.
The story is told around the fringes of the festival itself, and doesn’t get any closer to the central stage of the concert than a grassy hilltop so distant that the performers are, to paraphrase a lovely line of dialogue that I wish I could remember precisely, no more than tiny ants making musical lightning down below.
The first half or two-thirds of the movie concerns a Jewish family running a motel in a small dairy farming town near the Catskills, and the role they played in making the epic hippie music and love event happen at all. The concert, which had been denied permits in two other counties (including the eponymous Woodstock, NY, which is not where the event was held after all), is in danger of not taking place for lack of location, until Elliot (Martin) realizes he (as the leader of the local Chamber of Commerce) has the ability to set up the Woodstock Concert Promotions corporation in his parents’ motel as headquarters, and convince his dairy-farmer neighbor (a winningly canny Eugene Levy) to open his pasture land as the concert site.
There are a ton of side and supporting characters, all portrayed as gently comical, that flit in and out of the movie. An acting troupe full of zany performance artists in love with free expression is holed up in Elliot’s barn, and they take a couple of opportunities during the movie to throw off all their clothes and race around naked, which is a minor spectacle that (as you can tell from my Oh, Calcutta! review) I enjoyed seeing. I was left a little disappointed that some of my favorite wacky side characters (including Levy, the acting troupe, and Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing Korean War vet) didn’t get a final appearance at the end of the movie to round their subplots out, but by then the story has narrowed down from the chaos of setting up the concert to its very individual effect on Elliot himself.
Elliot is a sweet, even-tempered, introverted, nice young man who has emotional-distance issues with his parents, which at this point is starting to seem like a stand-in for Ang Lee himself, since most of his movies have a central character like this. I was struck during this movie that it seemed to be crystalizing exactly what makes an Ang Lee movie an Ang Lee movie, re-exploring all of the themes that interest him time and again, and allowing him the opportunity to make some of the same formal experiments with visual storytelling that he’s dabbled with before. Many times the movie breaks up its frame into overlapping split screen frames of simultaneous action; it’s something Lee used in his Hulk movie as an interpretation of side-by-side comic-book panels, but here it’s also an evocation of the Woodstock documentary movie and its use of split-screens. It also slowly begins to dawn on one, when two of the characters meet at a turntable not to discuss rock and roll, but instead begin a shy, earnest discussion of the pleasures of listening to Judy Garland, that we realize there’s some Brokeback Mountain revisitation going on here, too.
The movie evokes one of the cultural conflicts of that era in a way that can’t help remind one that the exact same conflict is happening in the news this summer, forty years later. The conservative older folks in the town aren’t happy with all of these young wacked out liberal kids getting together to destroy their homogenous little town with their drugs and orgies. They start with freezing out Elliot with icy looks and barbed remarks, and move on to strikes and angry protests, none of which do the slightest thing to stop from happening a happening that cannot be stopped. Commenting on the pinheadery of his WASPy neighbors, Eugene Levy remarks that he’s heard more pleases and thank-yous and witnessed more conscientious good manners by these crazy hippie youngsters than he’s heard in 20 years from these supposedly upstanding but incredibly closed-minded townsfolk.
The use of soft drugs (excepting what I describe below) is mostly shown as a part of the counterculture but not all there is to it. There is, once again, a scene in keeping with the renewed mainstream trend of showing the effects of marijuana ingestion to be unthreateningly mild — Transformers 2, e.g. — where eating pot brownies by mistake gives somebody’s parents a temporary case of the sillies. A dubious and harmful suggestion, as I maintain that you have to eat them on purpose and know what you’re in for to enjoy it; if you have no idea, you’re almost guaranteed a paranoid freaky bummer of an experience. (I note a recent news item where several people checked in to an emergency clinic feeling poisioned and traumatized after eating what they thought were normal brownies.) In any event, it’s especially dubious over-selling of the notion for the movie to say that Elliot’s parents ate “four each.”
As the film starts winding down in its final third, Elliot is encouraged to leave the motel and go enjoy the festival. He’s given a motorcycle ride by a state trooper who says he expected to come down and crack his baton over the heads of rowdy druggies, but instead he’s changed his attitude after witnessing how well behaved and well intentioned these kids are, en masse and individually. This is a sentiment among the state police who helped coordinate traffic and do general peacekeeping for the festival weekend that’s been documented. Even 40 years later, some are still willing to go on record as saying it was the best behaved crowd they’d ever seen. Once at the concert site, though still a mile away from the stage, Elliot meets some kids with a van, climbs in with them, takes a tab of acid (not the brown stuff that’s going around and sending people to the come-down tent) and has one of the more realistically depicted trip experiences I’ve seen in a movie, from the initial anxiety-inducing intensity to the post-peak elation of stumbling around under the stars and seeing things in a new way.
The movie ends on a strange note, with the main concert organizer riding away from the muddy trash-strewn pit left in the wake of the event, and telling Elliot to come West to help him with an even greater happening they want to do, with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. If you know the history, this Stones event was a disaster, with the Hell’s Angels who are enlisted to provide security ending up stabbing someone to death. We’re left with Elliot determined to go find a better future for himself, but what he’s apparently heading for is a major bum trip. I suppose there’s something of the story of America and what the baby boomers of the Woodstock weekend did with themselves after that remarkable peaceful weekend encoded in that, but the movie doesn’t spell it out. Like I imagine Ang Lee himself to be, his movie is a little too polite and introverted and nice to be overt about it.
Oh, Calcutta! is one of those Age of Aquarius theater experiences I’ve known about for some time. One comes across references to it when one delves into the 60s and 70s or the modern history of theater. I never knew exactly what it was about or why it had that peculiar title. Its main claim to fame was that it featured a lot of onstage nudity, but claims like that always tend to fall short of the hype. As an experiment it seems never to have been revived or repeated, so I never got much of a sense that it was interesting as a show apart from the surprise of seeing naked actors.
Recently I found a copy of Oh, Calcutta! at the video store. I didn’t realize any document of it existed, but apparently it was videotaped in 1971 for television. (I have to imagine this was a Canadian television outfit, because no American network would show anything like it, not without censoring adult themes, language, and nudity, without which there isn’t much show left to air.) I was mildly curious to finally see it, not realizing I ever would, and the credit for John Lennon as a writer pushed me over the edge. I didn’t know he had anything to do with it, but it was around the time he first moved to New York City. There’s no mention of what exactly he contributed, and I figure all of my speculations are probably way off the mark; if I were to learn what Lennon added to it I’d most likely say, “That? Huh.”
In any event — there were a couple of things that made it worth watching, but for the most part, it is a collection of sketches, comic and serious, that are completely dated satires on the expanding sexual mores of the time. A young couple answers a swingers ad to find out what that’s all about, and some unappealing oldsters arrive to get it on. There’s one about a confused young girl who wants to be all free love but is actually really uptight and insecure about sex even with a steady boyfriend, who turns out to be into all sorts of wacky things that she won’t let him do. A victorian sleaze invites a haughty dame over and tries to ensconce her in his custom designed sex traps, but she turns out to be not quite as pristine as she seemed. A weird bit where a man and a woman are dressed as children for some sort of roleplay, and after some teasing and flirting, he rapes her. That one was really disturbing, of course, but intentionally so. It came at the beginning and nearly made me stop watching.
There’s an inane “wacky doctor” sketch where everyone mugs and rolls their eyes and leers and none of it ever produces a laugh. A good looking redhead does disrobe, which is something. More on that in a minute.
There was one skit where two country hicks are sitting in rocking chairs. The joke is that one of the hayseeds spends two minutes drawling about paintin’ the fance [sic], makin’ a rock garden with them rocks he collected, and other bumpkin affairs. Then the other fella, after a long pause, starts talking in the same slow drawl about frank sexual experiences, favorite sex positions, and other explicit admissions (and emissions). Then, after a long pause, the first guy falls out of his chair. It wasn’t really that funny, but I understood what they were going for, and it made me want to put on my director hat and restage it so it worked better, probably by having the second guy start talking earlier, and the first guy attempt to keep talking about nothing in hopes of getting the other guy to change the subject, with rising unease. Although, I guess if you do it that way he can’t fall out of the chair at the end, because his shock has already registered. Ah well.
At about that point in the show, I turned off the DVD and thought about returning it with the rest unseen. Then I played the rest of it the next day and saw something worthwhile. It was a dance, a ballet, performed by a lithe young woman and a muscular young man. It’s basically just a dance evocation of a sort of archetypal meeting and mating ritual between male and female. Both dancers are nude, but it would work the same in leotards. I’ve been thinking about dance lately, in that it’s an art form I read about (in the New York Times arts section), and have developed an intellectual respect for it and what it takes to choreograph it well(the obits for Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham were both fascinating to me on a certain level), but I have basically zero ability to watch it with any sense of appreciation. From classical ballet to the idiotic spread-leg humping of music video dance, or even the dances in West Side Story, I’m bored by it, I don’t get it, or it just looks dumb. About the only dance I like is watching Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, but a lot of that is about the percussive syncopation of their feet and the sound it makes, and not so much about them waving their limbs around.
Well, so, finally, this one naked dance appealed to me. It’s funny when I say it that way, but at least with this dance I understood the story it was telling and the way that the choreography was designed to tell it one symbolic move at a time. There are times when they split apart, and times when they fall back in synchronization. Moves when she makes a ripple with her body and it jolts him. By the time I finished watching it, I was thinking, “Well, a lot of this show looks kind of amateurish in a way, but somebody hired a professional choreographer to work out this dance. Even I can see that.” I watched it again the next day, then looked up on the web who the choreographer was, and it turns out to have been the woman in the dance, Margo Sappington. She is still a working choreographer, and Oh, Calcutta! was her debut as a choreographer.
I started wondering if you asked her about that dance today (titled, according to the DVD chapter menu, “One on One”) she’d be embarrassed and dismissive. Not because of the nudity, but just the perspective an older artist has about the work they did when they were younger. “Oh, it’s too blatant, it’s too direct. I’d do it much more subtly now. It’d be the same but much more effective.”
Anyway, I was forced to think that this dance number alone made it worth renting.
The show ends in a bright exuberant display of full frontal nudity from the entire cast. The nudity turned out to be appropriately hyped after all, at least for this one number, anyway. The cast assembles after all the skits are done and appear to be just in street clothes talking amongst themselves as if we were eavesdropping on their backstage chat. Then a few of them start singing, and then dancing. Then Margo Sappington, who I was looking at already, gets a spotlight shined right on her. She beams a big smile, then tears off her one-piece jumpsuit. At once, the rest of the cast all rip off their clothes and run around with joyful smiles for a minute, happy in their immodest and unembarrassed freedom. All in all, I wish I could see more happy nudity like this, but it really isn’t what you get from any pornographic or erotica source, which is generally where nudity is to be found in the marketplace.
The cast is half male and half female. The women in the show are all pretty, which is nice. The downside in terms of the men is seeing Bill Macy, best known for playing the husband of Bea Arthur on Maude, just a few years after he did Oh, Calcutta! Seeing Bill Macy naked is only a few places removed at the bottom of my wish list from seeing Bea Arthur naked, but suddenly there he is. Although, if you’ve ever been to any kind of clothing-optional beach or park most of what you see there are guys who look like Bill Macy. It becomes tolerable for its ubiquity. So, I guess I’m at the point with male nudity (which seems to be on an upswing, so to speak, in Hollywood movies lately, for some reason — it seems to be something Judd Apatow brought to the table, unasked) where it’s like, okay, whatever, just don’t stand in the way too long. (Also, apparently Bill Macy married one of the women in the cast of Oh, Calcutta!, so I guess he must have a great personality. Or he made her laugh.)
Female nudity, of course, never loses its inexhaustable and enduring appeal. So from that standpoint, Oh, Calcutta! is worth a look, if only to see Margo Sappington dance.
This past May, Anthony Sloan, one of my best and lifelong friends, died suddenly. Today, his ashes are being scattered at a sacred place in Utah, on what would have been his 39th birthday. Here is a copy of the words I wrote for the memorial we held for him in Austin.
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d.
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
When George Harrison died, Paul McCartney simply said, “He was my baby brother.” It was a lovely thing to say, neatly packing into it the strength of the bond, the tender feelings at the heart of it, and a relationship that had lasted since both of them were kids. They weren’t really brothers, but they were.
Now Anthony’s gone, and when feelings of grief started to spike their way out of the numb fog I initially found myself in, that quote came to mind, and I realized I felt the same way. I felt like I’d lost my little brother. Technically, Anthony was older than me (by a month), but somehow there was a way in which he was my little brother, who started out kind of small and puny but eventually charged off on his own, seeking pleasure and excitement, broadening his horizons, always seeming to be in a little bit of a hurry to get to the next bit.
I remember the exact day I first met Anthony. It was 27 years ago at Kirby Hall. We had a fun afternoon outside in the park, playing with gunpowder of all things, under the tutelage of a science teacher named Frank Mikan. We drew shapes and cursive words in the dirt with sticks, and then he poured trails of gunpowder into the grooves. We made sure they all connected, then Mr. Mikan lit one end and we watched it burn the trail all the way to the end. I was best friends at the time with a guy named Mike, and Mike’s sense of humor was such that he just wanted to draw a big nose with an extra big blob of gunpowder at the nostril, so that it would appear to sneeze in a big explosion.
It was this adventure with the gunpowder that made the day stick in my memory, but Anthony later told me to my surprise that this was his “visiting day” at KHS, when a prospective student drops in for a day. Anthony had such a good time that of course he came home saying Kirby Hall looked like great fun, and there he was there from 7th grade all the way through senior year. By the time we graduated, he was one of my best friends, and still is.
I remember that in between our junior and senior years, there was a financial crisis where it looked like Anthony wouldn’t be able to afford to come back in 12th grade. It was resolved by his agreeing to work on the school all summer with Joe, the school custodian and handyman. In particular, Anthony helped give the interior a new coat of paint, paint that’s probably still on the walls of that school even now. Anthony made sure to let us know that while we were slacking around having fun that summer, he was working and painting. He was busting our chops, but underneath that I think he was feeling a sense of ownership and connection to the school that was more real, like he personally had earned the right to be there another year, where the rest of us were kind of coasting in. There was a boost of pride and self-esteem there that would serve him well.
Anthony’s transformation from the small little crushed over guy he was in 7th grade to the confident (and possibly overconfident) young man he was by 12th grade is something I’ve always been amazed by. For years, he had no self esteem at all. Even in a school made up of nerds and misfits like Kirby Hall, Anthony started out on the really far end from being cool. He was short, he wore big chunky glasses, his lips didn’t close over his teeth when they were relaxed, and he nearly had a lisp. He was not good at sports or physical activities (which will surprise people who knew him in recent years), and didn’t stand out academically. Some of us liked to draw, as did my friend Mike, and Anthony wasn’t that great at drawing, either. He could draw one thing, this funny little fish. An Anthony fish.
So even though Kirby Hall was a school where public school misfits like myself could find a home, it was still tough going for Anthony those first few years. I have always had a history of giving people that weren’t considered cool by the cool kids a chance, and I befriended him, and included him where I could.
There was one weekend that Anthony spent at my house. I can’t remember how this came about, because at the time I didn’t think of him as one of my close friends, though I did after that weekend. I think he was originally just going to stay one night, but due to the weather his mother didn’t come to get him until Sunday. It just happens that this weekend saw the best snow fall that Austin ever had in my lifetime, or in Anthony’s. It snowed enough that we could go sledding down the street from my house. We both loved our memory of going sledding that weekend, even though that was just a tiny part of how we spent the time.
I remember we decided to play a board game, and I hauled out Risk, which wasn’t the best idea. It was fun for a little while, but eventually the balance of power tilted in my favor, and made us both miserable. Anthony was rolling lousy numbers in a long streak, and it was basically an inevitable death march until I wiped him off the board completely, but it was going to take another half an hour to do it. Yet there was also this sense that we couldn’t just quit before it finished, there was something kind of dishonorable and pride-wounding for him to accept that, even though neither of us were enjoying the game any more. Then, all of a sudden, I think I made a spastic move and accidentally kicked the board over, scattering all the pieces and ruining the game. We simultaneously burst into laughter, completely relieved that the game had been ruined so we could pack it up and do something that was actually fun.
There also occurred for some reason a bizarre pillow fight where we were both wearing sleeping bags over ourselves, so we couldn’t really see the other guy except to hear him go “oof!” or to hear his crazy laughter. It was incredibly silly, manically silly, completely senseless. Eventually we came out for air, and I remember Anthony had this blazing look of unalloyed joy on his face. I had just been having some fun, but he looked like he was having fun like he’d never had before. It was also like he was trusting me to really be his friend, not to turn around and push him around or be snide with him or put him down, or other things he just looked like he’d endured.
Anyway, that’s the weekend that my friendship with Anthony, that lasted to the rest of his life, was founded on.
There was a later counterpart, almost a sequel, to that snowy weekend. Sometime during college, my parents were out of the country at Christmas and I was alone, so Anthony invited me to spend the holiday in Houston with his father and grandfather. We had another great time together, though we’d discovered more grown-up ways of being silly. He hauled out a typewriter, and we took turns writing a book, one page at a time, riffing on each other and trying to be as entertaining as possible. By that point, Anthony and I had developed a particular comic sensibility together, first through ad-libs and the series of “radio shows” we tape recorded with our friends Dave and Steve. It was playful and of course silly, and often used corkscrew turns in logic that we found to be a rich vein for amusement. We’d invented some characters that were comedic versions of ourselves, some brothers named Birch Tree, Runt, and Clam. One of the archetypal jokes about those brothers was: “Birch Tree is the oldest, although Runt was born first.”
I was Birch Tree and Ant was Runt , and somehow this explains how Anthony was my little brother even though he was older than I am. In another week or so, I’ll be older than Anthony for the first time in my life. If he were around to joke around with, I’d say “Haw haw! Passed you!”.
Anyway, during those six years at Kirby Hall, I watched Anthony grow from awkward and small to grown up and forward-charging. He stopped trying to imitate and copy what the cool kids were wearing and doing (a phase he went through that broke my heart to see), and learned to dress like Anthony and feel darn good about it, to be himself, to find his own voice. He got a car named Fred, a piece of junk that he drove like it was a screaming little sports car. Then he got Spike, a Volkswagen thing that he could literally take apart and put back together. He was no longer diffident, but starting almost to act like an alpha male among our little pack.
Eventually I asked him what had catalyzed this transformation. “I got laid, basically,” he said.
That gave him the self-confidence he was missing. One can look back and see how he might have over-compensated for the lack of it, and come across as a bit of a jerk at times. I’m reasonably sure that if I’d ever roomed with him, like some of my friends did in college, I’d have a whole extra range of opinions about him. But, our lives were always kind of separate, and I can say truthfully that he was never a jerk to me.
There was one time when I said I was curious about the big towers you can see over West Lake Hills, and what was at the base of them. “Let’s find ‘em!” he said, and drove me over to where they stood. The whole time, he was very clearly pretending to be trying to find something that he’d visited on at least one and probably more occasions, like he was groping blindly. He was pretending to be experiencing it the first time, because it was new to me. I kind of recognize it because I’ve gone to movies with people and pretended I haven’t seen it yet even when I have, because then you can kind of feel like you’re sharing a new experience with someone. It’s totally misguided but shows you’re thinking about the other person, so I let him pretend he’d never been there before either. Thinking about it now, two things seem completely obvious: that Anthony would have raced out on his own to investigate those towers, just because they were there, and that without Anthony showing me where they were, I never would have.
Being a writer, I’ve come up with all sorts of fanciful ways to ease the heartbreak of losing my friend and brother. Anthony was asleep when he died, and I wondered, was he dreaming when it happened? What if he dreamed that someone approached him and said, “Well, Anthony. You’re all done here. You can stick around on Earth if you want, or do you want to come and see the next horizon?” After making sure that his friends and loved ones would be okay and his dog would be cared for, I can easily imagine that Anthony would have boldly strode forward, saying, “I’m ready.”
To wrap this up, I’d like to cycle back to where I started. When John Lennon died, someone shoved a microphone in Paul McCartney’s face and asked him to comment, and he said, “It’s a drag.” He was unfairly pilloried for this remark, and at one point in this last month I kind of felt moved to reclaim it as a perfectly legitimate thing to say. I wrote a simple song called “It’s a drag”, which I’m not going to sing because I’m not really a singer, but I’ll read you some of the lyrics.
It’s a Drag
It’s a drag that you’re not here now
It’s a drag that you are gone
It’s a drag that now that you’ve checked out
I still have to go on.
It’s a drag that you’re not here now
to laugh at my best jokes.
It’s a drag that there’s no friend here now
to fix my bicycle spokes.
It’s a drag, my friend, you’ve moved on
but I think you won the game.
For you learned it was love, and good, good friends
Not money, power, or fame.
It’s a drag that you’re not here now
Not for you, but for us, your friends
For you, there’s no drag, just the wind at your back,
on a highway that never ends.