Cinematic Masterpieces: WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

WoodstockBlu-rayIt’s funny. I hadn’t seen WOODSTOCK in its entirety in probably over 20 years. I had watched performance clips on Youtube and, of course, remember certain moments and statements and “characters” from the film, but I had completely forgotten what an absolute masterful piece of cinema it was. WOODSTOCK is so much more than a compilation of musical performances. And what’s frightening is how easily the film could have been shot or reduced to that very thing if it had fallen into the hands of different filmmakers other than the team that ultimately defied the impossible and brought this film to life.

Director Michael Wadleigh, along with a ragtag team of some of the best documentary cameramen and women ever assembled, ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a very young editor and assistant director, Martin Scorsese, managed to work through some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable to capture the entire experience that was WOODSTOCK.

We all know the basic story: They expected between 150,000 to 200,000 people max to attend. They ended up with over half a million. A small city. No one was prepared. But that didn’t matter. From audience to performers to coordinators, everyone worked in unison to pull off an event that was almost entirely peaceful and cooperative. And people from all over came to help with medical attention, food, shelter, whatever was needed to turn this state of emergency into one of the greatest events ever successfully undertaken. It truly was an unintended statement to the world at large. It was proof of something better, a way of thinking, a way of being. It wasn’t just artifice, but a sampling of humanity. It was a living alternative. And everything that was said and done then, still resonates today.

And the film puts you right smack in the middle of it all. But it does so with a unique and powerful vision. Shot entirely on 16mm, the film was designed for and released in the 70mm format. Quite a leap. But Wadleigh and team pulled it off with some of the most daring split screen opticals ever seen. Suddenly, the stories within the story start to appear. What is being said or done on one side of the frame is being commented on, visually and otherwise, on the other. And the performances are each approached with a unique individuality to best capture the feel and flavor of the music, the performers, the environment in which they were playing and the audience to whom they were playing for. It wasn’t just about capturing the music, it was about becoming part of the whole event. Thanks to the visionary talents of the folks behind the cameras and in the editing room, WOODSTOCK the film doesn’t just show you the event, it is an elemental part of the event. And because of that, we are as well.

A great example is the CANNED HEAT segment of the film. One camera, one take. It’s a testament to Wadleigh’s eye, fluid camerawork and sense of the music (he was the handheld camera operator for this particular shot) and the great restraint and vision of the editors. It’s a powerhouse moment that personalizes the performers and the environment around them. Around us. There is no desire on the part of the filmmakers to disguise the fact that they are there. They are as much a part of what is happening on that stage as the band members themselves.

Then there’s THE WHO. Suddenly, we find ourselves with three separate frames within our single 70mm frame. The juxtaposition of images, many simply duplicates reversed to create a moving, breathing bookend to the center image, offer us not only different angles on the performers and crowd, but enhance–nay, recreate–the psychedelic and energetic nature of the music itself. It’s an all-absorbing journey deep into the psyche of the adventure that was taking place on Max Yasgur’s unsuspecting farm that evening. It is as much a visual feast of great complexity and wonder as it is a testament to the band’s unmatched musicianship and tirelessly vital performance.


And after each band completes their set, we return once again to the ongoing saga happening behind the scenes. Be it one hell of a rainstorm that nearly stopped the show in its tracks, or the thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams of the people attending, or the amazement, horror or joy of the local townsfolk at witnessing the behavior of their new neighbors, or the social impact one senses the event is already starting to have long before its conclusion is in sight, WOODSTOCK cinematically captures a world that is, in many ways, still with us.

While the “hippie” movement and Summer Of Love have faded into history, the remnants of those recent times have been absorbed into our everyday society, our very way of life. Health food stores have grown into chains, yoga is now as commonplace as school, spirituality has moved into new regions where the choices are endless and mainstream. It’s a far cry from the world that those who attended Woodstock may have envisioned, but changes were made nonetheless. Yeah, we still have wars and we moved into an age of greed and consumership that reflects the fear and confusion inherent in all societies and we still exhibit some of our puritanical roots, but we also have rallies and protests and the ability to call our leaders out and ask for something better. These are all things that were validated and given life in these times and the times that came before.


While there are many who believe the movement was misguided, short-lived and, ultimately, a failure, one has only to look around to see the effects it has had on the world in which we live. And the music that reflected the era, that spoke to a generation and beyond, is still some of the most powerful and heartfelt musical expression to be seen or heard anywhere throughout our long history. And WOODSTOCK the film shows us that in all its shades of light and dark. One need only witness the performances by Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix to understand and realize that there were geniuses in our midsts. And I do not throw that word around lightly. These were men and women who tapped into something rare, that segment of humanity who grace us with their inner voice, with a talent that belies their youthfulness, with a form of expression that deeply touches the soul of man and reveals it, naked and for all to see, with exquisite delicacy and wonder.


WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT is part of that revelation. And I am grateful for its existence. Both for its cultural value, its spiritual value, and its extreme artistic value, which I was far too young to comprehend when last I viewed the film. It is a place I hope to return to again and again. And next time, perhaps, I will take some others with me.




10 years



Cinematic Masterpieces: WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

BARAKA In Blu: The Eyes Of The World

title-barakaThe film BARAKA was the first film since 1970 to be filmed in Todd-AO 65mm and the last as of this post. Director Ron Fricke, who was the cinematographer on the Godfrey Reggio film Koyaanisqatsi, takes the concept of that film–non-narrative images and music, ambient sound, no dialogue–and expands on it to create one of the most intense, emotional, startling, mesmerizing films I’ve seen to date. Fricke has not only managed to embrace the power of cinema and cinematic language, he has also embraced the power of man and nature, of culture and civilization, of spirituality and the cosmos.

BARAKA is a Sufi word meaning “a blessing, or the breath, or the essence of life, from which the evolutionary process unfolds.”

The images in BARAKA tell many stories, and those stories will change depending on the viewer. The themes are there, it is how we interpret them that is open. The film takes us on a hypnotizing odyssey through our world’s brightest and darkest moments. The emotions and reactions summoned by the film are many, from joyous to unsettling, but never pointless, never exploitative, never anything less than eloquent.

800-large-baraka-blu-ray1Fricke developed and patented a 70mm time-lapse system wherein the filmmaker can change the pace of time, while panning or tilting as if the viewer were casually witnessing these images in real time. It’s a startling and often breathtaking effect.

Traveling the world, Fricke and his producer, Mark Magidson, and their three-person crew filmed at 152 locations in 24 countries: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Hong King, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Nepal, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States all on a $4 million budget.

800-large-baraka-blu-ray4The evocative score by Michael Stearns is as integral a part of the film as the images themselves. In addition to Stearns, music by Dead Can Dance, L. Subramaniam, Inkuyo, Brother and David Hykes are also featured and work with seamless and enthralling perfection. A 96 kHz/24 bit audio remaster was done for the DTS-HD Master Audio and the result is a stunning aural landscape with such nuance and precision as to flawlessly transport the viewer directly into the images with all its lossless beauty.

The Blu-ray transfer is everything it has been boasted to be. BARAKA is the first 70mm film to be transferred at 8K. The original 65mm negative was used and scanned at 8200 pixels with state-of-the-art equipment at Fotokem Laboratories. The 8k film scanner took over 3 weeks to scan more than 150000 frames (approx 12-13 seconds to scan each frame) culminating in over 30 terabytes of digital information.

800-large-baraka-blu-ray9Project supervisor Andrew Oran has stated that this remastered Blu-ray of Baraka is arguably the highest quality DVD that’s ever been made”. After having watched it, I would have to agree. At least I have not personally seen anything so far that surpasses its beauty and definition. Film critic Roger Ebert described the Blu-Ray release as “the finest video disc I have ever viewed or ever imagined.”

Fricke is currently working on the sequel to BARAKA titled SAMSARA which, according to Wikipedia:

“refers to the cycle of reincarnation or rebirth in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and other related religions.”  

In his own words, Fricke has said about his work:

“I feel that my work has evolved through KOYAANISQATSI, CHRONOS and BARAKA. Both technically and philosophically I am ready to delve deeper into my favorite theme: humanity’s relationship to the eternal.”

800-large-baraka-blu-ray7So while I wait with baited breath for SAMSARA, I can’t recommend highly enough a viewing of BARAKA on Blu-ray. It is, in many ways, a life-altering experience. 


BARAKA In Blu: The Eyes Of The World


Taking a small break from the horrors of current American politics, I want to share a bit of fun news about Warner Bros’. new Blu-Ray release of the classic Cinerama film HOW THE WEST WAS WON. While never one of my favorite films, it certainly has its moments and the John Ford directed sequence is a real standout. But regardless of how you feel about the film, viewing it projected in Cinerama is a completely different experience than seeing it in any other format. It’s also an opportunity available only in a few select places in the world. This is due to the Cinerama process itself, which I will now attempt to quickly explain. 

Premiering in 1952 with THIS IS CINERAMA, Cinerama employed three different projectors running simultaneously to create a “wide screen experience” unlike anything seen before. The image was projected on a 146-degree curved screen and the sound pumped through 7 different speakers to add to the feeling of total immersion. In order to do this, the film itself was shot with three different cameras running simultaneously and pointed at slightly different angles. When shown on a Cinerama screen, the alternate angles of each image when placed side-by-side created the illusion of actually being there in the action. 

Sadly, however, the process was incredibly expensive and yielded only a handful of films. For a few years after its demise, some films still carried the Cinerama label (IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY among them), but these were not shot using the three camera process. 

So what happens when you take a true Cinerama film and try and show it on DVD or video? Well, for one, the seams separating each individual image are clearly visible. And worse than that, when not projected on a curved screen, the image appears to “warp” at the sides. Until recently, this was the only way to view these films at home. But thanks to a new process giddily titled “Smileboxing“, Cinerama films can now be seen properly at home. No, it’s not nearly the same as witnessing the process in a true Cinerama theater (I’ve seen it and it IS remarkable), but this gives you a damn good idea what it might be like. Smileboxing is a relatively simple idea: take the sides of the image and distort them to give the illusion that they ARE being projected on a curved screen. In other words, create the curve on a flat surface. The other thing? Try and remove all traces of separation between film strips. While this last part is apparently not perfect (you can still see the seams if you look closely), it is an astounding improvement over any home video version to date. 

Here’s an image from HOW THE WEST WAS WON shown in both simple letterbox and then in Smilebox:

And just to give you an even better idea of the grandeur of Cinerama and the clarity of the process, here’s a smileboxed frame from SEARCH FOR PARADISE:

The only catch? The Smileboxed version of HOW THE WEST WAS WON is only available on Blu-Ray disc. So if you were looking for that great excuse to upgrade your DVD player, that excuse has just arrived.