September 26, 2010
I watched Ang Lee’s 2009 “Taking Woodstock” a few night ago, but couldn’t keep the real “Woodstock” (movie) out of my mind’s eye. I’m a big fan of Lee and his producer (and screenwriter), Focus Feature’s James Schamus, so it was hard for me to not like this film.
So, I re-watched the original (another film I’m a fan of) to try to give some words (and images) to what I felt might have gone wrong for the talented and innovative Schamus and Lee: something that might be sitting in the space between the “real” of a 1969 music festival, the “truth” of one 1970’s documentary representation of that experience, and the narrativization of those once-documentary images about forty years later.
I was moved to see how many of the images in Taking were directly taken from the documentary which itself had taken theirs directly from the actual event. However, given the skills of these contemporary filmmakers, why did every direct shot-for-shot quote feel like such a quote: the picture-perfect outfits looked like costumes, the exactly rendered facial hair (on Eugene Levy playing Max Yasger) looked like the fine craft-work of professional make-up artists, the groovy buses with hippies draped across their hoods looked like the expertly painted props of first rate art designers, the naked dancing of trippy thespians looked, well, groovily performed. Why and how this gap of perception between beloved “real” documentary images and their carefully fabricated fakes especially given that there is always already a gap (of production and representation) between the real and its doc ? Given the ever more convincing flourishes of present-day fakers (see my last post on I’m Still Here), could it be that the filmmakers under consideration had left very carefully unfinished the line between fact and fiction, choosing not to close the gap? Why fake perfectly fine reals? Why the re-take?
Clearly, my questions are rhetorical. I’m all about making such distinctions clear, whether this be to maintain that a stake in the (representation) of the real still matters, or because this keeps the (work behind the) form of film in the picture. But those goals seem more relevant for fake documentaries than they do for real fictions…Perhaps Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot by shot remake of “Psycho” is more useful here.
Or better yet Elisabeth Subrin’s shot for shot re-make of the 1967 documentary, Shulie.
Those films also make their re-takes apparent (Taking Psycho, Taking Shulie), engaging in their own art of the reveal, to allow us to be aware of compelling temporal distances in desire, style, politics, and film where original real documentaries are often too convincing (and dated) to allow for this self-aware distance, while also reminding us of the take in every documentary, as well as in every quote of a documentary, each cut n paste, and all the re-mix. Through its bad re-takes, “Taking Woodstock” reiterates what the hippie interviewees kept insisting on-camera in “Woodstock”: Woodstock was never there for the taking, or the selling, or the owning or representing, it was really only for the living (and perhaps the remembering). As I consistently debate with my YouTube students, the more we can document, and fake document, the more moving all that falls off the record will become: an impending nostalgia for whatever might be left untaken.