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First Impressions: November 

Every year the Woodstock Film Festival gets better. I know. I went to the very first film of the first year, and it was dreadful. The film was Swimmers, directed by Doug Sadler. Set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, this listless story of a depressed 11-year-old girl was filled with bad alternative rock music. The biggest problem with the movie was its almost total lack of swimmers.

By contrast, this year’s festival (the eighth) began with The Fiddle and the Drum, a performance of the Alberta Ballet (of Canada) choreographed to the songs of Joni Mitchell. Twenty-five young, androgynous, multiethnic dancers performed, as the songs played. (The dancers were painted—smeared with pastel colors, on their hair and torsos, perhaps by Joni herself.) Almost all the music was from Dog Eat Dog, an obscure record from 1985 that now seems prophetic—the lyrics capture the unconscious imperialism and gratuitous lying of 2007.

The Fiddle and the Drum
is a rock video for geniuses. Instead of the clichéd acting in most videos—the girlfriend walking out the door defiantly, the singer-boyfriend protesting his innocence—the arms and necks and thighs of these dancers move in intricate displays. (The choreography is by Jean Grand-Maitre.)
By the end of the movie, I was weeping.

After eight years of the Woodstock Film Festival, I finally understand their slogan (“Fiercely Independent”). It means they don’t show Hollywood films. Many festivals—even the ultrasnob New York Film Festival—eventually get sucked into the Hollywood Publicity Machine. The WFF, so far, has not.

I saw Oswald’s Ghost, Robert Stone’s captivating documentary about Lee Harvey Oswald. At the party afterward, I had an exclusive interview with the director, who told me that much of my “information” about the Kennedy assassination was mythical: dozens of people didn’t rush to the grassy knoll because they heard shots being fired; the parade route wasn’t changed at the last moment. The “Mr. X” whom Oliver Stone relied on for JFK was not credible at all. And Jim Garrison, the New Orleans DA who dramatically announced, “The CIA killed Kennedy,” had been in a mental institution.

Stone said it was impossible that Jack Ruby planned the murder of Oswald, because he left the house at 11:17, and Oswald was supposed to change cells at 10am.

The Warren Commission was covering up something-—the fact that they knew Oswald was a threat, and didn’t properly track him. Also, they downplayed Oswald’s Marxism, to avoid a confrontation with Russia.
“Oswald’s mother is the key to Oswald,” Stone said. (In the film, we see her say: “My son has done more for America than anyone in the 20th century!”---—after the assassination.)

Neal Cassady
covers Neal’s life from the time he met Jack Kerouac in 1946 to his death on a railroad track in Mexico in 1968. Immediately after the film, arguments broke out around the theater. The man next to me turned to his friend and said: “At Wetlands, I saw a film compiled by Ken Babbs of footage by the Merry Pranksters—it was magical! The Pranksters in this film were just a bunch of dreary dopes!”

A group of five sexagenarians in the lounge shouted about Neal Cassady. “Some of us feel it’s the worst film we’ve ever seen, and others feel it’s just the worst film we’ve ever seen at a film festival,” reported a bearded man when I explained that I was the press.

“It’s very difficult for young people to understand the Beat era,” I observed. (Noah Buschel, the writer and director of the film, is 29.) “It’s like the Napoleonic Wars to them.”

“But a young person could make a good movie about the Napoleonic Wars,” observed a female sexagenarian. “There was no one in this film you’d want to spend even a minute with!”

“I think Buschel has some grudging respect for Kerouac,” I put in.

“Yes, that’s a good word for the film. It was grudging,” she replied.

But the music was remarkable. There were three songs by Don Cherry, who played “pocket trumpet” for the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, two Thelonious Monk tunes, and two Pharaoh Sanders pieces. There’s one scene, toward the end, where Cassady visits his sleeping family in San Francisco. He’s crept into their house, after abandoning them. Instead of the melancholy violins you’d hear in any conventional film, Pharaoh Sanders is screeching joyously. Neal never wakes up his wife or children. He just stands there, listening to his interior jazz ecstasy.

I sleep poorly during the festival. Seeing six films a day is like traveling through Peru. At night, your mind is seething with the faces of all the farmers and orthodontists you’ve met.

—Sparrow

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