Faking/Taking Woodstock

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.

It came as no surprise to me when Casey Affleck at long last spilled the beans: that his tawdry expose of Joaquin Phoenix’s bad-boy decent into star-boy-debauchery was, in fact, a nearly two-year performance piece, culminating in a premier at Venice, Joaquin’s triumphantly skinny return to the red carpet (and acting), and, of course, Affleck’s well-timed reveal. For, any student of fake documentary knows that without a reveal, a fake documentary is something much less sexy–merely a documentary. While it may initially seem fascinating to pruriently revel in the paunchy, drug-addled behind-the-scenes excesses of a once pretty superstar, we’ve seen this many times before. More compelling (especially for vain directors and actors) are the cinematic skills needed to pull off such a hoax: not visible unless revealed, lucky for you if that’s on the pages of The New York Times or the couch of Letterman. Furthermore, if good fake documentaries are actually about the serious ideas of identity, community, and truth (which I argue with co-editor Jesse Lerner in my edited anthology on the genre, F is for Phony), the audience needs to know it’s a fake to get the full weight of any serious faux film’s intended impact. As a producer myself of two of these funky hybrids (director Cheryl Dunye’s 1995 The Watermelon Woman and 2010 The Owls), I am the first to admit that their real art is in the reveal: when, where, and how often you expose (on screen and off) your hand as well as your sleight of hand (see Orson Welles’ F for Fake on this magical matter).

Thus, most fake documentaries litter their texts with such reveals, as does I’m Still Here. Well before Affleck’s requisite well-timed end-game off-screen admonition, I went to see the flick already in the know (simply from reading reviews) that its end credits readily expose the fake: Affleck’s dad is credited as playing Joaquin’s, Panama (where the moving father/son intro and conclusion is supposed to occur) is listed as shot in Hawaii. If you go to a fake documentary knowing its real status, pleasures of viewing do remain, but they gracefully morph from the low (shock value, spectacle, and prurience), to the high (formal, conceptual, and sometimes even political.) If you know a fake is a fake, you watch for the reveal (what are the filmmakers showing on purpose, and where do they make mistakes), and as importantly, for THE REAL. Because of course, while fake documentaries are largely scripted, staged, and performed, as is true for all of contemporary “reality” programming, there is also, always, a tiny bit or residue or trace of the actual person, place, or conversation (what semioticians call the indexical) also caught in every single faked frame.

Joaquin’s tummy (and his assistant’s penis) serves as just such a reveal/real. To make a fake documentary (like a fiction film), you have to shoot things out of sequence (also true for real documentaries, hate to muddle things here). In any one scene, Joaquin’s bloated belly (and his wayward beard, and gnarled hair) serve to verify that something real(ly) bad is happening to the real Joaquin, who truly does need to be trim, handsome, and well-groomed to be a successful star. The film reveals that his fat body is real, and we revel in the fact that Joaquin really needs a buff bod to get paid. But in many scenes, the size of his stomach (shot over and over again, yuck, to verify the “real” descent of this man) changes, revealing that this reveal of the real is itself a trick revealed. The many-times full-frontally viewed penis of Joaquin’s sorry, abused assistant performs a similar function (as Joaquin’s constant drug-use does not, because it really could be faked, although who will ever know?), in this case using another’s manipulated body part to verify all that might otherwise be too easily manipulated, while at the same time “proving” that Affleck and Phoenix are heartless, wealthy, ass-hole, bad-boys who will use those around them like objects to get things done and make their (high art) little film.

Finally, in this sense, watching “I’m Still Here” as a fake documentary that intentionally reveals certain bodily clues to verify that it is (not) real, begs this feminist viewer to consider what it symptomatically disappears, what it doesn’t show without knowing. When the same victimized assistant shits on Joaquin’s face as payback for the constant revealed revealing of his penis (and other similar acts of planned outrageous star-bullying, or are they?), we are denied any bodily proof (which would be pieces of poop) of this extreme act: it was clearly staged, and badly so–Joaquin cleans his face off-screen. However, while faked traces of homo-social bonding and bullying litter the text as reveals (the “real” Entourage), there is nary a shot to be seen showing how Affleck and Phoenix treat the real women in their world (save two gratuitous, highly-edited, and thus hardly revealing scenes respectively “exposing” Joaquin and his boys’ adventures with call girls in NYC and blond fan-babes in Vegas). Thankfully, Affleck’s wife and Joaquin’s sister, Summer, is never seen. But nor do we see any of the largely female crew who worked on the film, perhaps because several of them actually sued Affleck for sexual harassment while making the film (now settled: see Joaquin’s blog on this matter), including complaints of transvestite prostitutes on the actual set. As any student of documentary knows: it’s actually hard to catch on film evidence of real bad boy behavior, that is, in a sexist society that is all set to cover this up, and keep it under wraps, unseen, unrevealed, and finally, settled, leaving as evidence, instead, only the boys’ own carefully planned reveals (and all this might reveal).