Ang Lee doesn’t owe me anything. If any, I owe him to be grateful for the impressive string of great films he has made over the years, from Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. But being an acclaimed director sometimes has to feel like the most ungrateful job in the world. Every individual moviegoer will find their own, highly specific individual reason to tell themselves that they didn’t quite like your movies. But it doesn’t have to be something they didn’t like. It could just be something they think they’d have liked even better. When people are in that mood, it doesn’t help to ask them whether they think the movie would have been better if they’d taken over the reins (they’re supposed to say no), or more pointedly, to say that that’s the reason why you’re the director and they are not.
With great reluctance, I’m now going to give that grumpy moviegoer treatment to Ang Lee’s latest movie, Taking Woodstock. The grumpy moviegoer also has the privilege of being able to be completely unreasonable, and this is where my personal experience comes in. In a way, I actually felt like Ang Lee rejected my advice on this film. Never mind the small fact that I didn’t tell air my wishes and expectations for the movie until after it was finished, when the trailer was released back in March. To finally get to see the film and realize that many of the warning signs I saw back then were actually in the full product, felt, however unreasonable, like a double rejection. Here’s what I said I wanted from it back in March:
I’ve secretly yearned for a Woodstock epic every since I first saw Mike Wadleigh’s superb 1970 documentary Woodstock five years ago (…)
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 historical 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 film with a fixed impression of how hippies were.
While it may be unreasonable to hold Lee accountable for ignoring advice he never actually received, my disappointment in Taking Woodstock is not limited to shattered expectations. Having seen the final product, I think some of my above-mentioned points hold up quite well. Most importantly, I’m convinced the movie could have been made more interesting if it had taken a somewhat broader perspective on the event. Sure, the rules are different when you’re filming someone elses material, as Lee and his screenwriter James Schamus are doing with the memoir this movie is based upon. But in deference to the source material, Lee in my opinion narrows the scope too much. As a fan of what you might call craftmanship movies – movies about the nuts and bolts in making art (happen) – I was initially disposed to like the movie’s focus on all the work that has to be put in to make a festival happen, but in the sum of things, even that seemed to be too broad a focus for this movie. Treating the festival as a peripheral point, Taking Woodstock instead reads like part logistics comedy, about the logistical challenges in getting the festival going, and a far larger part quirky family drama/coming of age story.
A Woodstock epic it is not. Sadly.
The real story here, then, is about the tightly wound family of Eliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), who has a series of things he can’t quite man up to tell his parents; instead of telling them that he feels somewhat trapped in the expectation that he’ll help them continue their financially disastrous family business (a motel), he secretly jumps on the chance to attract the Woodstock gathering to their neighborhood; and instead of confronting his homosexuality, he lets his countercultural new customers speak for him. In letting the family saga take center stage, Ang Lee takes this seminal moment in modern culture down to the absolute micro-level. The conflicts of the Tiber family (social ties versus self-realization and individualism, heteronormativity versus fluid sexuality etc) reflects Woodstock more than Woodstock itself reflects society at large. My problem with that is not this story itself (though I may have wanted a broader perspective) but that its narrowness makes it harder for me – aside from the fact that the movie is based on Eliot Tiber’s memoir – to understand why this story necessarily had to be told to the backdrop of Woodstock, when the festival is never more than a vague catalyst.
I don’t know if this too could be attributed to my set of unreasonably high and specific expectations, but it took too long before I actually started to care for the Tiber family. I’m sure Imelda Staunton had a great time playing Eliot’s mother, and her performance is certainly memorable, but she nevertheless is given such a caricatured and cold demeanor that I can’t quite bring myself to sympathize with her when the movie suddenly makes some revelations about her. The way Eliot’s father (Henry Goodman) finally lights up when his wife is forced to loosen her grip on the family and their business marks moments of warmth in the movie, but even they are sometimes played against a very specific, presumably loving play with the cliches of Jewish family life, that feels both somewhat alienating and even a little hostile.
At the margins of the family drama, Lee includes an eclectic selection of hippies and other representatives of frivolity, and to a point he succeeds with adding some light and a broader scope to the story. This is best captured by Liev Schreiber’s transvestite character, played with remarkable ease and comedic timing, and by Jonathan Groff, in the form of Woodstock organizer Michael Lang. Both actors have a certain magnetism about them that make them the movie’s best attempts to build a bridge between the micro and macro levels. Schreiber’s presence adds the element of sexual politics, while Lang brings the logistics in logistics comedy. His affable personality and chemistry with Eliot is the closest Lee comes to tackling the gay subplot, but although it’s as indirectly done as the frustrated handling of the festival itself, this part of the movie is actually quite satisfying. Jonathan Groff has something about him that makes him shine in a relativity small role.
That something used to be attributed to Emile Hirsch as well, but as Franz pointed out in his review, not even Hirsch can successfully play the hand he’s dealt here. Hirsch’s Vietnam veteran may stand as a symbol of what feels wrong about the hippies inhabiting this movie, much along the lines of my fears from March. Apart from the needed liveliness they add to the Tiber household, most of these characters retain the distinct feel of plot devices. The movie never really tries to present these people as anything more than slight variations of our cemented view of the cinematic hippie. This is particularly frustrating when it comes to Hirsch’s character, because he’s meant to harbor a wide emotional specter. In the end, he doesn’t move the story in any meaningful way, and when he’s on screen, his silly sides tends to stand in the way of his more somber side, and vice versa.
I’m not criticizing the fact that this is a comedy. I’m just disappointed that a director like Ang Lee, who has previously shown his ability to meld personal dynamics with broader stabs cultural shifts (The Ice Storm), somehow decided that Woodstock was not important enough to be an essential part of a movie titled Taking Woodstock. Unlike what he may have hoped, the family drama is neither strong nor funny enough to carry the movie, and its practically Woodstock-less nature threatens to undermine any sense of urgency the need to tell this story might have had. Again, I know this is a an adaptation of a memoir, but this at least raises the question whether the memoir was the right angle to go at the Woodstock phenomenon in the first place. This might be the disappointment talking, but then again two months have passed since I watched it, and my impression hasn’t improved much. I’m not sure if some of it could have been avoided by marketing the movie as less Woodstock-centric, but I did actually feel that I was tricked into expecting something they never intended to deliver.