Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” was just screened here in Cannes this afternoon and the reaction as the end credits rolled was polite applause. This was, I thought, supposed to be one of the movie-events of the festival, a near-transformative experience–I expected the earth to move. Ang Lee happens to be one of only two American filmmakers presenting in Cannes, and his association with James Schamus of Focus Features has become something of a legend (Schamus also wrote the screenplay). But “Taking Woodstock” is, sadly, a disappointment.
Lee never quite rises above the mundanities of both the good and the bad of Woodstock, and the family story which sits squarely in the middle of his film is forgettable at best. What happened, I wonder, to Ang Lee’s vision? Did he think history and our fond reminiscences of Woodstock would be the engine that drives his film? Woodstock likely had little to offer in terms of plot and action (take a space brownie, boogey in the mud, drop acid, slide down a muddy slope), but what little there was Lee avoided exploiting altogether, opting instead to tug at our heart’s strings and lay the passions of family acrimony on thick. The two stories, of one family’s survival and the other the concert of all concerts, are somehow kept disconnected from one another, leaving us to wonder why taking woodstock feels so hollow and pointless.
Let’s try and put things into perspective. While it was an extraordinary event Woodstock did not make history: history made Woodstock. The three-day concert was the most tangible manifestation of a youth movement, the culmination of a generation’s befuddled (and befuddling) search for truth which was also its undoing. But the way Ang Lee used Woodstock, the pre-concert preparations and the concert itself, to tell the more personal story of how deals were brokered and a community split up over it, falls flat. There are some funny and touching moments, of course, as Elliot Tiber (played by Demetri Martin) negotiates the use of the land with a concert promoter to ensure the concert can take place on the township’s grounds and his family life is soon completely eclipsed by the hippie invasion. But I found myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat and looking at my watch.
The story behind Woodstock, which Lee reconstituted more or less faithfully, goes like this. Elliott, a closeted gay man who’s left his interior decorating job in the Village, returns to his parents’ upstate New York home one summer to help out with their failing motel business. Their financial woes are growing as the family’s business slowly comes to a halt (the infrastructure in an awful state of disrepair and vacancies are high). When Elliott, who runs the town’s ‘chamber of commerce’ hears that Walkill, the next town over, just voted against a major music concert taking place in their township. Elliott seizes the opportunity at revitalizing his neighborhood and hopefully help his parents out of dire straits. But Lee’s examination of this family’s travails is pedestrian and uninspiring. It’s as if he is expecting the bewitching effect of the Woodstock experience to fuel plot lines and character development and for us to go gladly along for the ride.
But it’s not that easy, and God knows I was a willing participant having enjoyed Lee’s films in the past. The film sputters forward and as soon as the novelty of kids gliding around in the mud wore off, things fizzle quickly. Lee carelessly veers off into overtly sentimental territory, the kind that literally makes my skin crawl. Towards the end of the film Elliott’s dad, a hardened and tough-minded immigrant from Europe (the type who survived the pogroms and escaped Nazi Germany) announces that he felt like he was dying up to now and now feels changed by the experience and is alive, once again.
I hope that time will be kinder to Ang Lee and that his film will find more supporters than detractors. After all, Lee’s attention to details and production values obviously make for some serious entertainment. But watching blissful people swirling in mass hysteria can only be fun for so long. Maybe exposing the negotiations, small-town drama and family rancor against such a legendary concert was a project that was doomed from the start. I just know that all I’ll want to do when I go back to New York City will be to watch “Gimme Shelter” again, one more time.