Monday, September 07, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock is a strange movie, in both good ways and bad. One of the most surprising aspects is that it's more a coming out narrative than a piece on Woodstock per se. Yet even this turn fails to fully explain the film. Indeed, the real twist is in who is doing the coming out.

Although it's unclear for at least the film's first 40 minutes, Taking Woodstock's principal character Elliot (an excellent Demetri Martin) is in fact gay. Moving back to his hometown to help his parents with their fledgling motel business, Eliot has been forced to take on a decidedly more tacit position in regards to his sexuality. However, when he reads that the Woodstock concert has been rejected from its site at Walkill, he sees a way to pay off his parents' debts by offering the organisers a land permit in his hometown. The consequent onslaught of hippies, drugs and free love ends up creating the perfect environment for his burgeoning sexuality.

Ang Lee's restrained style is for the most part sensitive if not always suitable to the film's radical milieu. His use of close ups is particularly touching, bestowing a loving gaze on faces and inspiring an almost tactile quality (this is Taking Woodstock after all). But what's most interesting is in what Lee leaves out. Despite the film's apparent Woodstock narrative, there is barely any attention paid to the concert's actual live music. And despite the film's apparent (or not so apparent) coming out narrative, Elliot never actually has an official coming out scene. By the end of the film, he has supposedly slept with another gay guy from the festival, yet strangely there is next to no reference made before, during or after the event. And while he ultimately finds the strength to lead his own life and leave for California, he never ends up discussing his sexuality with his parents (or anyone else for that matter).

On the contrary, Taking Woodstock is set up so that its real coming out scene belongs to Elliot's eccentric and offensively stereotypical Jewish mother. What should have been the climax of Elliot's coming out narrative (Elliot waking up next to his gay lover) instead merely serves as the parallel to the coming out narrative of his miserly matriarch. As Elliot exits the bedroom he finds his mother in her own compromising position - asleep in the 'closet' clutching over $90,000 worth of cash. The 'booty' is her life savings which she has kept secret from her husband and her son; this despite failing mortgage payments, the bank's repeated attempts to take over the family motel and her son's selfless work to save the business. The mother is essentially outed as a money grubbing Jew, with all the offensiveness that image entails. The tactile quality evoked by Lee's adoring close ups becomes here merely a desire to grasp the substance of capital, money in its material and uncirculated form ie. shining stacks of new dollar bills.

Indeed, the film tracks multiple parallels between money and coming out. From Michael Lang's suggestive, loving gaze while discussing financial transactions and land payments, to Elliot's father's comments on how much money the organisers are making from Woodstock as hippies skinny dip in the background. The connection is made most explicit when Lee divides a central scene into two simultaneous shots: one half spying Elliot chatting up a construction worker he is interested in, and the other half showing the Woodstock organisers discussing the concert's budget and security issues* while pointing out Elliot as the one who told everyone the concert was for free. Lee seems to constantly remind us that Woodstock was primarily an investment opportunity and profit making venture. But perhaps in this scene he suggests the film's true coming out moment was when Woodstock itself was outed as a 'free concert', thus inspiring the collective spirit that ultimately defined it.

*The decision on taking down the security fences was a crucial decision in defining the concert as a 'free concert' and not just another money making venture. By taking down the barriers the night before opening, the organisers helped encourage the social harmony of the concert by preventing any violence between the ticket holders and non ticket holders. It also inspired many more to show up for the event.

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