Taking Woodstock
Directed by Ang Lee
Screenplay by James Schamus
based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber


The new film from Ang Lee, with a screenplay by James Schamus, is a look back at the events of forty-years-ago that is not so much nostalgic as ironic, commenting on the "unintended consequences" of actions. It's also a meditation on Jean Paul Sartre's famous insight that meaning is something we add on to our experience when we reflect on it afterwards.

Lee and Schamus, through the medium of a memoir by Elliot Tiber, have managed to reflect on those three days of peace, love and music in a way that is reminiscent without being sappy, and leaves the audience free to attach their own meanings to the events depicted.

Tiber's eponymous book, published in 2009, tells the story of the of the fabled (and much fabulized) event from a sort of "worm's eye" point of view. Tiber was the son of a family struggling to make a success of a dilapidated Motel left over from the glory days of Catskills tourism in the 1920s and 30s. He needed money to keep the place afloat, after sinking all the cash he had accumulated from his NYC decorating business into it.

In 1969, he returned to White Lake for the summer, to make one last push to turn the failing business around. As President of the Chamber of Commerce, he had asked for and received a permit for a three-day music and arts festival (Tiber was far ahead of his time in seeing "arts-tourism" as a viable pairing). When he heard about the organizers of the Woodstock festival being pushed out of their location in nearby Walkill, he offered them the use of his permit and his premises. Michael Lang - the commercially-minded "hippie" who had put the concert together, saw the possibilities (and saw that time was running out for his endeavor) and the rest is - and with the 40th anniversary and the release of this film is still becoming - history.

Lee and Schamus bring a new approach to the concert - that has been mythologized in books and especially the very successful Michael Wadleigh documentary movie titled Woodstock, originally released in 1970, and then in ever longer and more complex versions for 25th and 40th anniversary "editions." They realized that in light of the iconic status the concert-film had achieved, there was no way they could depict the show itself. By focusing on the personal and the idiosyncratic - "One Man's Woodstock" as it were - they could explore the way it unfolded and the impact it had in a microcosmic way.

It also gave the writing/directing team, who have worked together on more than a dozen films, an opportunity to weave their own favorite themes, of family dynamics, personal identity and responsibility, and social customs, into the story. They remind us very effectively that the "story of Woodstock" is the story of more than half-a-million individuals, each of whom brought something different and unique to the experience, and each of whom took something different away. It's this focus on the particular, together with the suggestion of the many untold stories that swirl across the screen - now in the background, now in the foreground - that gives the film its evocative power.

In terms of story-telling, this technique works very well for such legendary events.A single story is told in a more-or-less linear and complete fashion, while fragments of other stories intrude and recede, creating a depth of context for the event that - too large to be depicted directly - is rather alluded to by indirect references.

So we have Liev Schiber's character, Vilma, a cross-dressing ex-Marine who provides security for the motel. There's definitely a movie to be made tracing "her' evolution from the Corps in Korea to the El Monaco, but the story left untold is more powerful in suggesting the unlimited scope of transformation available to human beings, than it might be in trying to tell it. In the same way, Elliot's awakening to the necessity of claiming his identity as a gay man (a recurring theme in the Lee/Schamus partnership's work) is a casual aside that suggests how unexpected and unintended - yet pivotal and far reaching - the consequences of the seemingly simple act of trying to save his parent's business was for him.

The festival itself is a largely unseen presence. It's not the myth, Lee seems to be suggesting, but the much more personal and specific effects that dipping into some of the many currents (that - after the fact - coalesced into that myth) that had a lasting and meaningful effect that matters. The Myth - like the apocryphal, media-created character of the "hippie" waked and buried by the Diggers' Emmet Grogan in San Francisco in fall of 1967 - was a commercially-sponsored mass-marketing tool, used to sell soap and make money.

But as Lee and Schamus seem to be saying, that doesn't make the transformations the real events inspired any less meaningful. Contrary to the hype and nonsense, a three-days-long accident that happened to turn out much better than anyone had any reason to expect, didn't "define a generation," but those three days did resonate in a meaningful way in thousands - maybe millions - of lives, including that of the then 15-year-old Lee himself, hearing about it in far-away Taiwan.

Lee and Schamus work together well, as they ought to after almost two decades of collaboration. Schamus's script plays to Lee's strengths as a director, in depicting the subtleties of relationships - especially within families - and as an observer of social customs. They approach the "significance" of the festival only obliquely and specifically: to Tiber it meant his parents had saved their business (freeing him from the necessity of continuing to try to live their lives), and that he had been able to show them who he was and gain their (and his own) acceptance.

Lee seems to have exercised close and effective control over his cast, to preserve the narrative thread that ties together what might have been a rather chaotic and episodic story. Demetri Martin, a stand-up comic who is in his first major acting role here, was clearly well-guided by Lee and skillful editing and pacing help to make his work effective, although there are moments when he seems out of his depth.

The fact that he's given such highly-skilled performers as Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman and Schreiber to play against - they carry (but never steal) the scenes in which they appear - doesn't hurt either. Staunton gives a fabulous performance, disappearing into the character of Elliot's eccentric, obsessive mother Sonia. She manages to capture the comic, as well as the frightening and disturbing aspects of the character.

As Lee makes the family dynamics between Elliot, Sonia and Elliot's father, Jake (Goodman), one of the focii of the film, the strength of the two veteran actors' depictions gives Martin a solid, dependable base from which to work. It's the family structure that gives Elliot's character his motivation as well as his sense of authenticity, and the interactions with characters as textured and nuanced as those with whom Lee and Schamus have surrounded him helps bring him to life.

As Vilma, Schreiber creates one of the pivotal presences in the film, a sort of "mad-sage" who has solved at least one of the problems of identity with which Elliot is grappling for him/herself. That Schreiber can make a hulking, pistol-packing, transvestite ex-Marine completely believable is a tribute to his acting skills and Martin benefits from the level of conviction Schreiber brings to the scenes in which they both appear.

Supporting roles are equally well cast and directed - although they have less to do with establishing the overall sense of the film. Eugene Levy (in one of the few roles where he isn't doing Eugene Levy schtick) Jonathan Groff, Emil Hisch, Paul Dano, and a host of others - including a cameo by Richard Thomas - bring their talent to bear to create a strong context for Martin and the main narrative line.

Reliable Hollywood composer Danny Elfman provides workmanlike original music, and Lee and his producers skillfully work around the difficulty and expense of clearing the rights for all that Woodstock music by using couple of actual songs and a host of "sound-alike" pieces and original songs to suggest all the music that was being made. This isn't a concert film or a musical - as for many of the original concert-goers, the music is incidental.

The camera-work is well-handled. The film is stylistically tied to the Woodstock documentary with lots of strange camera angles, panoramas, rough hand-held sequences and especially lots of choppy, jump-cut editing in the parts that recall the concert itself. The more "domestic" sections show Lee's long-established mastery of an unobtrusive and convincing "fly-on-the-wall" viewpoint on family affairs, that he was already effectively developing in his early films like Pushing Hands (1992) and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994). T

he production values are quite good. Given a somewhat limited budget, Lee has managed the historical period reproduction pretty well. Thanks to a large cast of low-paid (mostly local) extras (and some judicious CGI), he manages to pull off a "cast-of-thousands" look without investing hundreds-of-millions. The motel and the concert venue, which are the two principal locations seem completely authentic.

Lee has proven himself to be a versatile and capable master-filmmaker, with productions that range from wrenching dramas like The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution to period RomCom (Sense and Sensibility), action/adventure (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and his early family-comedy/dramas. He has the awards (including an Oscar) to prove it. While Taking Woodstock is not his best work, he brings the same level of skill and attentiion to it and it is a fine piece of filmmaking that is well worth watching.

That's my take on it. What's yours?