Saturday, August 29, 2009

Morning Wood

I usually make it a point to 'do' the Rambler as my last official act of the day. The only drawback with this plan, sometimes, is when I reach that point and it turns out I'd rather make my last official act something else. Last night, for example, it was reading the umpteenth story about the Beatles' dissolution, this one written by Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone. I'm guessing reading new stories rehashing history I can already recite chapter and verse is my adult version of watching Star Wars 37 times.

Beatles aside, tonight will also be a bad candidate for Rambling, since we're having a party and it's usually about 3 AM before the last stragglers leave, so I guess if we want any Rambling done this week, it's going to have to be during daylight hours. Which these are - Yesenia and I slept in this morning, and though now she's gone off to the store, I'm still in bed, aimlessly surfing.

Last night, we saw Taking Woodstock, Ang Lee's new film about the festival as seen by a young local who helped make it happen. Lee has yet to make a bad film, placing him in my dark horse race for favorite director, along with Richard Linklater. Linklater probably has a leg up, since he's made one of my favorites (Waking Life), but Lee always does deliver and gets points for being more of a traditional 'big' Hollywood filmmaker, his films always having the sheen of old-school craft. And, like Linklater, Lee sort of snuck up on me, as I realized that I'd seen several of his films and not only didn't think any of them were bad, but also liked many of them quite a lot. Here's the list of Lee I've seen (in chronological order):

Eat Drink Man Woman
The Ice Storm
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Brokeback Mountain
Taking Woodstock

That's only about half of his CV, and those films cover a pretty wide range of subjects. He has clarity of story and vision, and has a sure hand with his actors, a plus in his character-driven approach. A sign for me that I'm on his wavelength is that even the two films on that list that were not critical successes - Hulk and last night's Woodstock - were films I really appreciated, even while being able to see their flaws.

Speaking of Taking Woodstock specifically, I've read the reviews and find I don't really disagree with any of the criticisms - there's a lot of cutesy stuff in the margins that probably harms the central story, if you're so inclined - but I find that Lee's humanist streak, attention to period detail (seriously, almost every film he's made is a period piece), meditative spaces and strong technical skills* always win me over. Besides, the details are a large part of the film's raison d'etre, and as jokey as they are, they give the film a needed sense of benign chaos that I imagine feels like the original festival.

It is a little disappointing that we never get to see any of the acts or hear much of the music, but that's part of the point of the film. In a way, I get the feeling that Lee intends his film as a companion piece to the original documentary, going so far as to borrow that classic's use of split screen for simultaneous storytelling. Others could use that reliance on the original as a knock against Lee's film, but I've always liked the idea of one work of art that illuminates small corners of other, larger ones. Grendel and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are both excellent, deep and meaningful works that rely on the reader's familiarity with the classics that they expand upon for their effect. It's probably a cheap postmodern trick, but given my love of a medium - comics - that's almost entirely built on a wink-wink-nudge-nudge series of callbacks, it's one I appreciate whole-heartedly.

Anyway, for most of you, I imagine Taking Woodstock would function better as a rental, but I'm glad I saw it in the theater. Ang Lee, I've got my eye on you.


*The ever-lovely cinematography and strong, clear editing are his hallmarks, so obviously he knows how to use his team well. Woodstock's editor is a longtime collaborator, but it's Lee's first film with this particular cinematographer, and it still looks like a Lee film, complete with desaturated palette, soft contrast and high-grain stock.

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