A Tall Tale: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock movie poster


Ang Lee’s Tak­ing Wood­stock is based on Elliot Tiber’s mem­oir Tak­ing Wood­stock: A True Sto­ry of a Riot, a Con­cert, and a Life, that pur­ports to be the untold sto­ry of how the Wood­stock music fes­ti­val came to Bethel, NY, in August 1969. Tiber claims he was the cru­cial go-between that intro­duced the festival’s orga­niz­ers to Max Yas­gur, own­er of the farm that became the site of the famous three days of music, peace, love, mud, brown acid, and traf­fic jams.

Even if only a por­tion of Elliot’s tall tale is true, it’s incred­i­ble that it has not been dra­ma­tized before now. In his ver­sion of events, an ordi­nary, meek kid becomes the acci­den­tal mid­wife of one of the biggest cul­tur­al events in mod­ern his­to­ry. Mix in most of the hot-but­ton issues of the time — the hip­pie vs. square cul­ture clash, gay awak­en­ing, anti-semi­tism, the mafia, and fall­out from the Kore­an and Viet­nam Wars — and you end up with what should have been a rich­ly defin­i­tive movie deal­ing with the era.

Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking WoodstockTrip­ping the light fan­tas­tic in the mag­ic bus

That Tiber’s account of the fes­ti­val is vig­or­ous­ly dis­put­ed by almost every­one involved (and sober enough to recall events now) is beside the point. The sto­ry is a good one, but the film nev­er seems to cap­ture the joy, anx­i­ety, or excite­ment of the moment. So what if it isn’t true? We already have a sup­pos­ed­ly objec­tive doc­u­men­tary on the fes­ti­val (but more on that below).

The biggest prob­lem is Demetri Mar­tin, who despite his suc­cess as a come­di­an and con­trib­u­tor to The Dai­ly Show, pos­sess­es approx­i­mate­ly as much star charis­ma as a plank. To be fair, his char­ac­ter is writ­ten to be repressed and but­toned-up, but the kid remains bor­ing even after what ought to have been a trans­for­ma­tive num­ber of enlight­en­ing expe­ri­ences, includ­ing his first gay kiss, first acid trip, and betray­al by his moth­er. Emile Hirsch appears in a small role as a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly scarred vet, and clear­ly would have been bet­ter in the lead role. Even Elliot’s par­ents are both more com­pelling char­ac­ters than he. His father’s (Hen­ry Good­man) inter­ac­tions with the bur­geon­ing coun­ter­cul­ture awak­en him from the vir­tu­al coma his life had become, and his moth­er (Imel­da Staunton) is a self-destruc­tive hoard­er, which the film links to Holo­caust survivor’s guilt.

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in Taking WoodstockThat’s a man, baby!

Lee’s visu­als are fair­ly straight­for­ward, mak­ing it rather jar­ring when split-screen sequences visu­al­ly allude to Michael Wedleigh’s doc­u­men­tary Wood­stock (1970). Tak­ing Wood­stock sup­ports Wedleigh’s the­sis that the most­ly harm­less hip­pies that sought a week­end of peace and music instead found hos­tile locals and a com­bat­ive, con­de­scend­ing press. But oth­er moments in Tak­ing Wood­stock serve to under­cut the orig­i­nal doc­u­men­tary, such as when Wedleigh is seen coach­ing a trio of nuns to flash the peace sign. If that icon­ic image was staged, what else might have been false or exag­ger­at­ed? Tak­ing Wood­stock may be a tall tale, but it also makes clear that Wedleigh’s film isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly reli­able either.

Tak­ing Wood­stock ends with orga­niz­er Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) about to mount anoth­er free con­cert fea­tur­ing the Rolling Stones. The Wood­stock fes­ti­val may have been chaot­ic, but it was suc­cess­ful inso­far that it proved peo­ple could gath­er in mas­sive num­bers and cel­e­brate pos­i­tive­ly and peace­ful­ly. Lang is ener­gized by what he achieved, but the mood is not so opti­mistic for those of us that know how it all turned out. The chaos and mur­der of the Alta­mount débâ­cle that marked the end of the Sum­mer of Love would be doc­u­ment­ed by The Maysles Broth­ers in Gimme Shel­ter (read Matthew Dessem’s excel­lent take on the film at The Cri­te­ri­on Con­trap­tion).

Demetri Martin in Taking WoodstockOne of the most famous traf­fic jams in his­to­ry

Just as Tak­ing Wood­stock nev­er quite takes off, Elliot nev­er actu­al­ly makes it to the con­cert. The fact that we nev­er see it, and bare­ly even hear it, is part of the point. Many of the 400,000 atten­dees prob­a­bly nev­er got any clos­er, either. And even those that did may have been too altered to recall much.

Ran­dom obser­va­tions:

  • There are puz­zling hints that Lang’s assis­tant Tisha (Mamie Gum­mer, Meryl Streep’s daugh­ter) is sig­nif­i­cant, but her char­ac­ter is ulti­mate­ly super­flu­ous. The role is not sig­nif­i­cant enough to match the notable cast­ing.
  • Like con­tem­po­raries Michael Win­ter­bot­tom and Dan­ny Boyle, Ang Lee seems deter­mined to nev­er make the same film twice. Seen in that light, Tak­ing Wood­stock is a refresh­ing break in tone from his grim, thor­ough­ly nonerot­ic Lust, Cau­tion.
  • Fur­ther, it’s also worth not­ing that Eliot’s homo­sex­u­al awak­en­ing is much more suc­cess­ful and ful­fill­ing than that of the tor­tured cow­boys in Broke­back Moun­tain.

Offi­cial movie site: www.takingwoodstockthemovie.com

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Se, jie (Lust, Caution)

Lust Caution movie poster


As a pub­lic ser­vice, The Dork Report would like to issue a warn­ing to any­one that under the impres­sion that Se, jie (Lust, Cau­tion) is an NC-17 erot­ic thriller. Judg­ing from the mar­ket­ing cam­paign alone, one might under­stand­ably imag­ine that the lat­est film from the direc­tor of Sense & Sen­si­bil­i­ty and Eat Drink Man Woman would be a sexy dra­ma suit­able for view­ing with a sig­nif­i­cant oth­er, but be warned that most of it is quite far from tit­il­lat­ing. In fact, the first of three sex scenes can only be clas­si­fied as a rape (albeit one com­pli­cat­ed by the char­ac­ters’ com­plex rela­tion­ship).

Se, jie is set in 1942 Japan­ese-occu­pied Shang­hai, with flash­backs to the few years pre­ced­ing. A naïve but sin­cere­ly ded­i­cat­ed bunch of Chi­nese stu­dent activists form a ter­ror­ist cell, with the aim to assas­si­nate col­lab­o­ra­tor Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). The­ater stu­dent Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) dis­cov­ers she is a nat­ur­al actress and gift­ed impro­vis­er, which unfor­tu­nate­ly also makes her a superbly qual­i­fied as a under­cov­er spy.

Lust CautionA scene from what might be called Ang Lee’s “Deceive Rape Man Woman”

To ful­ly inhab­it her cov­er sto­ry as a mar­ried woman, she must first lose her vir­gin­i­ty. This hap­pens almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with her cell los­ing their metaphor­i­cal vir­gin­i­ty as they mess­i­ly exe­cute their first right­eous assas­si­na­tion. As Paul New­man dis­cov­ers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Cur­tain, mur­der is hard work, and takes time.

Se, jie was released in the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and con­cerns many of the same themes: wartime occu­pa­tion, vio­lent resis­tance, and the use of sex as under­cov­er ingra­ti­a­tion. But while Ver­ho­even couldn’t resist front-load­ing his film with plen­ty of cheese­cake, Ang Lee and James Schamus take the high road and don’t pre­tend that the moral­ly emp­ty Mr. Yee isn’t vio­lent­ly twist­ed, and that Wong Chia Chi doesn’t absolute­ly suf­fer for her cause.

Lust CautionThis blog is rat­ed NC-17 for pub­lish­ing naughty film stills

Offi­cial movie site: www.filminfocus.com/lustcaution

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