‘Taking Woodstock’, Burning Man, and ‘Desert Vows’

‘Taking Woodstock’, Burning Man, and ‘Desert Vows’

by Mike Merell

Originally posted Aug 31, 2009

We all dream of better and happier places, no matter if we are rich or poor. That is the nature of the human condition. ‘Taking Woodstock’ is the latest film from Ang Lee, the Chinese born director who brought us many memorable films including ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Lee didn’t immigrate to the U.S. until a decade after the iconic Woodstock Music Festival happened but great directors can take us anywhere. I haven’t been to the theater to see a movie in 6 months, partly because I’ve been busy with my wife and 3 year old, partly because I’ve been networking and polishing my film ‘Desert Vows’, partly because I’ve been working hard with my job that pays the bills, and partly because nothing released lately has forced me to get into the theater. But since I was born in Oakland and lived next to Berkeley during the sixties onward anything from that era is innately in me. So despite the 50 percent tomato meter I felt anything Woodstock with a good director has to be decent, and I was more than right, I loved it.

I can’t understand why the critics were so harsh, citing historical inaccuracies, lack of comedy, and not capturing the moment. First of all since when did historical inaccuracies become the merit of a good film all the sudden. Oliver Stone in his portrayal of all the key moments of the past 40 years has taken so many liberties its unbelievable, and he’s condescending in the process, to boot: I was there, you weren’t, and it will never be this cool again. Second, I didn’t see this film as a comedy. It had laughs but it was more about young man’s journey towards being true to himself and looking for elusive happiness. Demetri Martin was great by the way. I was really surprised by him having only seen him on the Daily Show, he provided a depth to his character that I was not expecting. As far as not capturing the moment of Woodstock I whole-heartily disagree. I was not at Woodstock and I’m sure the bulk, if not all, of these critics who panned the film weren’t either. Ang Lee wasn’t there either, but the fact of the matter is even if you had been there you would have had a different experience then everyone else who was there so who to say he is wrong. For me the film experience Ang Lee created was one similar to the many feelings of freedom and self-discovery I have experienced at the Burning Man festival which happens every Labor Day in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Burning Man is probably the closest thing to Woodstock there is. Maybe more organized, but that is a good thing. I’ve been to big festival concerts and raves, the Us Festival, Lalapaloozas, Enit, Electric Daisy Carnivals, and the like, but Burning Man is different, you still have the music, and you still have to buy a ticket, but once your in, outside of ice and coffee , nothing else is for sale. No corporate sponsors, no capitalism, and because of this its about the art and the freedom of expression, of who you are. The need to keep up with the Jones next door doesn’t exist. What is more important in that moment is to be happy with who you are and to experience that feeling in a non-judge-mental way with others just like you. When I think of Woodstock and what it meant this is how I think it was. That is why I like Burning Man so much despite how hard it is sometimes. I think in ‘Taking Woodstock’ Ang Lee captured this feeling beautifully.

I haven’t been to Burning Man in several years. For those years my film ‘Desert Vows’ has taken its place. Like ‘Taking Woodstock’ I tried to create that moment and feeling when you see something differently all the sudden and you can’t go back to the way it was because you are not that person anymore. Despite how hard it was to make this film I liked being in the world that I created while I was working on it because to me its that place; its Woodstock, its Burning Man.

In the end of ‘Taking Woodstock’ Jonathan Groff’s character approaches Martin’s character and says hes going to San Francisco because the Stones are doing a free concert in Golden Gate Park. This is historically accurate and Lee’s irony is fantastic. The Stones, the ultimate capitalistic supergroup(yeah blasphemy I know, but its true) felt left out of Woodstock so they wanted to do there own. Similar to Woodstock the permits didn’t happen and the Stones had to find another venue. They ended up at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. 300,000 people showed up in the freezing cold and the film ‘Gimme Shelter (a must see)’ chronicled the violence that ensued and made it a disasterful ending to the sixties, all under witness of Mick Jagger who fittingly wore an alpha-omega symbol on his t-shirt. Perhaps as a nation we have been searching for that iconic ‘Woodstock’ ever sense. At any rate happiness is fleeting, and ‘Taking Woodstock’ made me happy, especially because I can’t go to Burning Man again this year and my film is done.

Mike Merell


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