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Faux Free Spirits
by
Howard Schumann

Although his poetry was little appreciated at the time, John Keats is now considered to be one of the supreme Romantic poets of the nineteenth century. The line from his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn-- “beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” is one of the most quoted passages in the English language and no student can escape high school without encountering his exquisite Ode to a Nightingale. One of only a small number of films that have dealt with the lives of poets, Bright Star, Jane Campion’s first film since 2003, revolves around the final years of Keats (Ben Whishaw) who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, and his love affair with eighteen-year-old seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

In 1818 in Hempstead Village in North London, the twenty-three year old Keats and his friend and writing partner Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) live next door to Fanny, her widowed mother (Kerry Fox), younger brother Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and adorable sister Toots (Edie Martin) who always accompanies Fanny on her walks. Fanny is a dressmaker who makes her own clothes and is respected for her talent as a fashion designer. She is also bright and personable, never lacking for an escort at the local dances. Jealous of Fanny’s growing friendship with the poet, the abrasive Brown tries to keep her away so that his friend can concentrate on his writing, but she handles him with considerable wit and their repartee is one of the highlights of the film.

Drawn closer to Keats when his brother Tom takes ill with tuberculosis, Fanny is more than eager to understand Keats’ poetry but finds it a strain. She asks for lessons, and John is willing to comply but tells her that appreciation of poetry must come from the heart. Their relationship grows but suffers as well because of the poet’s lack of material success, which he is constantly bemoaning, and because Fanny is afraid to be too aggressive, fearful of the whispering of neighbors. When John leaves town, Fanny waits by the door each day for a letter, as her relationship with the young poet has become the most important thing in her life.

When Keats becomes ill with the same illness that claimed his mother and brother, the lovers are continually being brought together and then torn apart and an immense barrier grows between them. Though older than the character by ten years, Cornish does a good job of portraying one of Campion’s more strong-willed and determined women. Whishaw’s performance, on the other hand, never comes alive and never conveys the type of deeply sensitive character normally associated with a poet.

While some of Keats’ more well-known poems are read aloud, there is little insight into the creative process or what makes him what he is as an artist. Bright Star is a film of delicacy and restraint, but it lacks inspiration, and a story that could have been truly sublime is merely full of pathos. I’m afraid that instead of feeling moved to go out and read more Keats poetry, by the end of Bright Star “my heart ached and a drowsy numbness pained. My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.”

*

The so-called hippie movement of the 1960s was never about peace and love, though that was part of it, nor was it about hedonistic fun, though that too was a part. Actually, it was not even a movement but a cultural phenomenon whose essence was space exploration: inner space. Saturated by false images from the mass media, young people sought an experience of self, an adventure of discovery of their true nature while attempting to strip away the false veneer of commercialism that passed for accepted values. Though the phenomenon petered out in the late sixties, co-opted by the media and by venal drug dealers, the summer of 1969 brought a new burst of celebration of self in the Woodstock Festival, one of the seminal events of the decade.

Held in White Lake, N.Y. from August 15 to August 18, 1969, the Festival included thirty two performers including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Credence Clearwater Revival, Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and many others who performed before 500,000 people. While fears of looting, drug overdoses, and rioting were ratcheted up by the media, nothing of the sort took place, though rain turned the field into mud and bathrooms were in short supply. In spite of a few incidents, nearly half a million people showed that quality music, the freedom of the spirit, and a feeling of harmony can lead to a successful event.

If you are looking for an authentic experience of Woodstock, however, you will not find it in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a film that recycles all the grossest stereotypes of the sixties perpetrated over the last forty years. Written by James Schamus, the film is based on the memoir Taking Woodstock: The True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte. It follows the true story of Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), an interior designer who lives in Greenwich Village and spends his weekends trying to help his elderly parents Sonia and Jack (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run an 80-room hotel in Bethel, N.Y.

Teichberg is also the head of Bethel’s Chamber of Commerce and has issued an “Arts and Festival” permit to himself for what he has planned as a small chamber music festival. Following the ban on a rock concert in nearby Wallkill because the portable toilets were allegedly not up to code, Elliot offers to host the Woodstock festival event, hoping to raise money for the hotel to ward off foreclosure. When the land in the back of the motel is shown to be a swamp, Teichberg contacts dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), whose 600-acre lot proves to be the field of dreams for the Festival promoter and organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff). When the crowd becomes massive, the word “free” is casually mentioned at a press conference, bringing thousands more to the small dairy farm in upstate New York and shutting down the New York State Thruway.

Though the film brings us close to one of the great concerts in the last century, Lee shows only peripheral events that take place in and around the Festival and, without the music, the film has neither heart nor soul. The closest Teichberg actually comes to the Festival is a hill overlooking the very distant stage where he can see the mass of people and hear faint sounds in the background that sound suspiciously like music.

Newcomer Martin’s bland personality is sufficiently laid back to play the uncharismatic Teichberg, but little in the way of human interest is created, in spite of the fact that the supporting cast that includes transvestite security guard Vilma (Liev Schreiber) and a disturbed Vietnam vet played by Emile Hirsch is strong, although Hirsch’s role is little more than a caricature. Staunton’s Sonia is a hysterical Jewish woman who is constantly screaming about Jewish oppression, and her performance is so over-the-top that she immediately becomes the front runner for a Golden Raspberry.

Taking Woodstock is filled with twenty and thirty-something actors pretending to be free spirits, and abominations such as nude theatrical troupes prancing around the stage, neither resembling recognizable human beings. While there are moments when a hint of idealism peeks through, as when Elliot demonstrates his gayness with another concert-goer and when he lets go long enough to ingest LSD with a couple in a van (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner), Taking Woodstock mostly rehashes all the familiar clichés of the age that ignore the creativity of the sixties generation, their incredible music, and their voice for authenticity.


©2009 Howard Schumann
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