the thirty-ninth anniversary of a film within a film.
Are ya doin’ a movie?
What’s it going to be called?
Oh, far out.
– Stoned hippie to film crew, outside portable toilets, in Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music
The 1960s dictum “be in your own movie” (from Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters) was indicative of the influence of mass-mediated representations over actual experience in the 1960s. Media mattered, even though the counterculture of popular memory emphasized direct experience over the virtual thing. The problem (or was it the possibility?) that many in fact ascertained at the time was that mass-mediated representation and actual experience — getting deep in the machine and back to the woods — were merging and melding in all sorts of new ways. Hence the love affair with Marshall McLuhan.
This brings us to the most important scene (partial clip here) of that most important film, Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music. Despite the recent mud avalanche of nostalgia for the fortieth anniversary of the weekend of concerts, the film had far more influence after its release in 1970 than the actual festival in August of 1969.
The key scene comes toward the end of the film. It unlocks the whole movie — and the festival it memorialized. It shifts the focus of Woodstock from romantic innocence to topics far more vexing, difficult…and sour-smelling.
We are fast approaching festival’s end, with Jimi Hendrix soon to appear, famously playing a searing version of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” We have just watched Sly and the Family Stone and Janis Joplin perform prime time on Saturday night, and the Hog Farm has made “breakfast in bed for 400,000” (as Hugh Romney, a.k.a. Wavy Gravy, put it from the stage before a mock-military-esque roll call played on trumpet). The film cuts to a truck that reads “portable chemical toilets.” Ladies and gentlemen, the Port-o-San scene.
The most important performer at Woodstock: Port-o-San Man.
It looks like we are about to witness the anti-Woodstock. Everything the counterculture sought to alter, all the artificial, plastic, disposable, deodorized, and disinfected faux-civilization that Woodstock’s mud, oatmeal, woods, and naked bodies in the lake sought to abandon for nature and the natural, it all seems to be encapsulated here.
And yet the scene that follows, titled “Port-o-San” on the DVD of Woodstock, is more haunting, more complicated, more evocative, than any famous musical performance in the film.
The camera pans from the truck to a middle-aged man dressed in a janitorial uniform. He is portly and balding but very friendly and jovial — this despite his job, which is cleaning portable toilets. “Man in here,” he says as he knocks on the toilet doors, then smiles. When he reaches the last one, it’s open and he discovers a cane. “Some poor fellow come looking for his cane,” the Port-o-San cleaner remarks.
It’s an odd moment: what is a cane, that quintessential symbol of old people, doing in this ur-film about youth? And how did it wind up in the portable toilet? Is the cane a kind of allegorical symbol of the older people who the hippies don’t want to become, trapped in their Port-o-Sans, avoiding nature and the real, only experiencing a deodorized box of plastic that barely covers up a world of shit below? Or is the cane a symbol of what is to come: the fall from grace after the bliss of innocent youth?
Maybe the cane is all of those things, which is why the scene is so important. The symbolism only grows as this movie-within-the-movie unfolds onscreen. The cleaning man sucks the shit out of the Port-a-San toilet with a giant hose. He dumps enormous amounts of disinfectant and deodorant within it to make it “a little more pleasanter when you use it.” He reloads the toilet paper, which is locked in its receptacle.
You can read the scene in multiple ways. It could be a critique of an American society that has sought to cover up with deodorant all that Woodstockrefused to avoid, that must lock the toilet paper in a little box to keep it from getting stolen while Woodstock has made everything free.
Or, as I prefer to read the scene now, forty years later, it is the Woodstock festival itself getting sucked up into that sanitation tube. For, Woodstock was shit, and anyone who pretended otherwise was full of shit. But that didn’t mean that it wasn’t important. The place was a disaster; though, like many disasters, it contained infinite small deeds of kindness and care. “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area,” Wavy Gravy remarks in his breakfast speech.
But just after he says this, Wavy Gravy also conveys a kind of sense of the hopelessness lurking beneath the joy. Woodstock is not to be a revolutionary transformation, much as it might feel like that amid disaster. He requests that “you people who still believe, you know, that capitalism isn’t that weird” to buy a few hamburgers from a man whose stand burned down overnight. The point, buried in Wavy Gravy’s playful tone and tooth-gap grin, is that the larger mainstream system of capitalism may seem bizarre in a disaster area, but it it is far from disappearing as a system. Woodstock the film, bringing in millions of dollars, would soon prove this to be undeniably true. But for Wavy Gravy, the point is to help out the guy who has lost his business. The small gesture of connection and support, regardless of the larger system, is, for Wavy Gravy, the crucial political act.
There’s a tragic consciousness at work here, buried in the utopian fervor. This is the case even in (or maybe especially in) a man such as Wavy Gravy, who would go on to start a clown camp. And the tragic quality continues in the Port-o-San scene. This is the part of Woodstock that so often gets lost in remembrances and anti-nostalgic complaints alike.
Placed as it is toward the end of the Woodstock film, the mood of allegory weighs heavily in the Port-o-San scene. Into the cleaning man’s hose goes not only the shit from a toilet at Woodstock, but maybe also the compost of the counterculture’s entire utopian dream of revolution or evolution to a new world beyond the difficulties of the current one. Woodstuck’s muck and mire was proof that another world might be possible, but that it wasn’t going to happen by the end of the 1960s. Humankind was not actually going to get any more humane. Woodstock‘s participants couldn’t escape the larger system that easily. The Woodstock dream, too, would get sucked up into the tube.
But the Port-o-San scene itself also suggests that those utopian dreams still lurk, nutrients accreting in the sewage pipes of society. They leak out occasionally, though no one has ever figured out how to capture the energies buried in their rich sod of desire and fantasy.
The tragic tone of Woodstock that so many miss appears again in the final sequence of the film, as we view the festival site from a departing helicopter, viewing fields strewn with garbage, glimpsing a giant peace sign made out of the mess. The Port-o-San scene sets up this post-apocalyptic, ambiguous ending.
“My son’s here,” the Port-o-san man says to the camera crew at Woodstock, “and I got one over in Vietnam too.” Here we get to a startling aspect of Woodstock. The festival site strangely, bizarrely, links the muddied home front of the counterculture to the big muddy of Vietnam. The festival captured inthe filmbecame an odd film-strip negative of the war: choppers buzz overhead, but bring rock musicians instead of marines, thousands wander a wasteland, looking blasted and dazed, there’s a strange collision of advanced technology and mud, we see lots of destruction and shit and no one quite knowing what to do with it all, but among the chaos, there’s are moments of love. Of course, Woodstock was not a war zone, but it took place in the long shadow (both mediated and direct) of Vietnam.
In his simple, un-hippie-ish way, the Port-o-San cleaner offers a very decent response to the madness. There might be a little bit of heaven in a disaster area, as Wavy Gravy waxed ecstatically, but the toilets make clear that there’s a whole lot more hell. So, caught in the middle of it, the cleaning man admits that he can’t keep up with the crowds who need to use the facilities. All he can do is do his best to “make it a little more pleasanter.” He’s glad to help the kids, and his tone of voice suggests he loves both his sons unconditionally, the one at Woodstock and the one in Vietnam. His demeanor is less starry-eyed than Wavy Gravy, but, watching forty years later, it’s also more dignified. That a man makes cleaning up shit seem dignified is no small feat.
As the tired debates about the 1960s once again get trotted out this year (the only essays now more stale than the nostalgic odes to Woodstock are the anti-nostalgic screeds), the Port-o-San scene suggests we revisit Woodstock and Woodstock in a new way: not as a tale about escapism (to nature) but about engagement (with human society), not as a story about screaming guitars and rock stars, but as a tale about quiet men and women who did small deeds of charity among what felt like the lost cause of American life.
This wasn’t escapism. Port-o-San is the story buried within Woodstock the film, and Woodstock the memory. It’s a story of trying to cope — truly cope, even in failure — with the infrastructural and intersocial dilemmas of the complex, modern world. It’s the story of being overwhelmed by tragedy but still trying to make the world “a little more pleasanter.”
The telltale sign comes at the end of the Port-o-San scene. Emerging from a stall, a stoned hippie makes clear that Woodstock is not going to be an escape to the garden. We’re not going back to nature. The dream has got to happen within civilization, not outside it. And, for him, that’s fine. When asked how his visit to the facilities was, the anonymous hippie shrugs, tokes his pipe, and sums up where we’ll have to start: “Beats the woods,” he says, and strolls off into the morass.
Tom Taggart, the Port-O-San cleaner, later sued the makers of the Woodstock film for using the footage of his interview.
- 489 F.2d 434: Thomas Taggart, Appellant, v. Wadleigh-maurice, Ltd., and Warner Bros., Inc., Appellees
- Jim Kneiszel, “A Blast From the Portable Sanitation Past”
And here is a retrospective interview with Wayne Rodgers, who claims to have been the “stoned hippie” who walked out of the Port-O-San in the Woodstock film: