Taking Woodstock’s cinematic problems start with wobbly psychedelic graphics that divide the title into three words: Taking/Wood/Stock. Is that title a naughty pun or a banal pun? Director Ang Lee and his writer-producer James Schamus try having it both ways. That’s regrettably typical of this middlebrow team whose high-minded concepts always try for controversy (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Partner), excitement (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk), sophistication (The Ice Storm) and complexity (Lust, Caution). But the team’s inherent banality—their lust-caution—always puts those goals out of reach.
Recreating the 1969 music festival that became an impromptu gathering of thousands—an event symbolizing the free love and anarchy of the hippie movement—Lee and Schamus attempt an unsentimental cultural summation. Their setting of sleepy upstate Bethel, NY, describes a commonly overlooked America where local communities feature a casual yet firmly rooted mix of farms and businesses and different ethnicities residing in ironic proximity. Thus, Lee and Schamus center on Elliot (Demetri Martin), the mildly ambitious son of a store-and-motel-owning Jewish couple; Elliot’s cosmopolitan ambitions are roused when historic renown is thrust upon his slowpoke hometown.
But Chamber of Commerce President Elliot isn’t a love-and-peace version of Babbitt, nor are Lee and Schamus modern de Tocquevilles. The film’s social assessment gets confused with its barely defined personal stories when Bethel’s small-town interests are overrun by the permissiveness, anarchy and money of intrusive, unstoppable outsiders. Really, it’s the same circumstance captured in Bye Bye Birdie, but Lee and Schamus lack a sense of humor. It’s well into the film before one realizes its failed attempt at comedy. Most disappointingly, they demonstrate no appreciation of popular music culture. (A reference to the Rolling Stones at Altamont the next year is not ironic, it’s smug.)
Incapable of Bye, Bye Birdie’s good-natured satire, Lee and Schamus look dryly at middle-class tolerance (“We ought to run you Jews out of town,” say white locals when Elliot’s parents and nearby farmer Max Yasgur exploit the overcrowded music festival), while also uncovering the commercial machinations that made Woodstock a counterculture touchstone. This pretentiousness causes some critics to overrate Lee and Schamus as serious artists. But they’re too starchy—too cautious—to observe Woodstock’s bacchanalia with an immediacy, sensuality or verve that would communicate that experience. Sure, they’re meticulous filmmakers—to the extent that they employ thoughtful technique: cinematographer Eric Gautier shrewdly recreates the era’s porn- and doc-quality sunlight, and the sound of rain heard from inside a barn is uncannily good. Yet it’s rather uninspired—like the use of split-screen montage to convey tumult and simultaneity. It’s as arthritic as Merchant-Ivory’s Slaves of New York split-screens.
Lee and Schamus never crack their own conscientiousness. They pussyfoot around the issues that enlivened the era, such as those relating to Elliot’s sexual release. He had been to the big city and tasted forbidden pleasures, but he’s virtually a closeted young burgher until the festival brings a plethora of men and a surfeit of liberty. There’s eye-catching homocasting in the roles of a construction worker and a young preacher (Richard Thomas) who spark Elliot’s libido. And Liev Schreiber plays a big-brotherly transsexual Marine veteran who awakens Elliot’s humanity. “Does my dad know what you are?” Elliot sheepishly asks. Schreiber responds, “I know what I am; that makes it easier for everyone.”
That exchange seems central to Lee and Schamus’ unfortunate lust-caution aesthetic. Here is the “wood” in their Woodstock assessment; its scenes of free-love flirtation are sexier than all of Brokeback. “You smell good, like an apple fritter,” Elliot dares tell city pal Mike (Jonathan Groff), a festival organizer. Yet even Elliot’s afterglow is visually buried—like the split-screen orgies. This distracts from comprehending Woodstock’s lasting libertine significance. A subplot about Elliot’s parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton impersonating Julie Waters without the fun) seems clichéd. The mother’s speech about hoarding $97,000 is strangely unmoving, as is the father’s marital confession. Lee’s remote compositions douse the emotions.
A set-piece where a motorcycle cop gives Elliot a ride touring the revels is peculiar—the wrong moment to become detached. It fails the great examples of cinematic murals like the house party in Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space or the nightclub scene in Richard Lester’s It’s Trad Dad!—long-takes that kept expanding, encapsulating the heat and sound of an era.
The same year as Woodstock, Arthur Penn’s anti-bucolic Alice’s Restaurant memorably said farewell to hippiedom’s illusions. Penn’s insights seemed ahead of his time; it’s depressing that he was also ahead of Lee and Schamus 40 years later.
Directed by Ang Lee
Runtime: 110 min.
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