You gotta give this to Ang Lee: He never does exactly what you expect him to do. More than many other Hollywood heavies with background in international cinema, Lee has insisted on and succeeded in building a career that lets him go back and forth between doing a broad array of American movies and still giving valuable contributions to the Asian cinema that made his name in the first place. From the light touch of Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and the crafty elegance of Sense and Sensibility; over the suburban anxiety of The Ice Storm and the visual and narrative richness of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the understated humanism of Brokeback Mountain, Lee has proven himself an eminently capable and brave film-maker in pretty much every genre. The trailer for his upcoming film, Taking Woodstock, again looks nothing like anything he’s done before.
When there still is some doubt in my mind about it, it could quite probably be attributed to impossibly high expectations. I’ve secretly yearned for a Woodstock epic every since I first saw Mike Wadleigh’s superb 1970 documentary Woodstock five years ago, and to put that into perspective for you, that’s even longer than I’ve yearned for Emile Hirsch, who’s also in on the project. These two factors, combined with my great admiration for Lee (on a blog somewhere, someone said that if Ang Lee directed a sandwich he’d watch it. I second that), add up a probably inevitable sense of (slight) disappointment in the trailer that was released last week.
I don’t know if such a movie could ever be made, or even written, but Talking Woodstock doesn’t particularly look like an epic take on the cultural and social implication of the music festival and the movement of which it was a manifestation. Rather, it seems Lee has attempted to do a comedy about the hippie movement. It’s not that I have anything against comedies, or hippies for that matter, but at some moments in the trailer it feels like cliches are just around the corner. Specifically, it will be absolutely crucial to the tone of the film that the hippie characters have a clear purpose, and that they are not included simply to symbolize free spirits and hostorical context. Ang Lee is not known to milk his audience for cheap laughs, but it certainly is a pitfall he’ll have to avoid, because the audience will come to the flim with a fixed impression of how hippies were.
When I keep returning to the fact that this actually looks like a fairly light-hearted comedy it’s not because that itself has to be a bad thing (Almost Famous, not exactly a gloom-pusher, ended up as one of the best recent movies about the seventies, as did Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused). Rather, it’s because there seems to be a certain disconnect between how the project was initially presented and how it’s sold through the trailer. Sure, the format demands a tight setup of the story, but I’m little surprised that the focus of the trailer is so firmly on the comedic elements, when it has been said that the movie would also include a gay storyline and take the broader cultural impact into focus.
On a more shallow note (was there ever another one?) I’m a little disturbed by the fact that Emile Hirsch, one of the main reasons I want to watch it, seems to have gotten one of the fairly predictable (judging by the trailer) hippie roles. And, despite surviving the horrendous hairdo in Milk looking better than ever, it turns out not even he becomes everything, after all. As regular readers would know, I’m no fan of facial hair, and that aversion runs deep enough to even hit Emile. I know, people actually looked like that back then, but then again, wouldn’t the contrarian thing to do be to make him a smooth prettyboy? Oh, it’s biographical, blah blah. But still?
Having gotten all my critical points out in the open, this seems like the right time to emphasize that if there is one director who could still pull this off, it’s Ang Lee. All his movies are more multilayered than they seem at first, and I’m confident Taking Woodstock will be, too. My guess still is that we’ll all love it (need it, even) after a long summer of one-dimensional blockbusters. It’s what I think in August (or whenever it opens in Norway) that counts.