By Luke Pals
August 27, 2009
We review the new film from Ang Lee ... starring Demetri Martin (?).
Forty years ago, even while it was happening, something called Woodstock defined a generation and took on mythological proportions. People say the seeds the hippies sowed are being realized in the general culture: civil rights, women’s rights, protection of the environment and so on. But we also live in the United States of Whatever. We play video games till our fingers bleed, and we’re still gettin’ off to war, voluntarily. The most Oscar-worthy movie of the year so far, according to critics, is The Hurt Locker, a decidedly video-game aesthetic of the “real-life” experience in Iraq, told through the goggles of bomb squad techs. Is adrenaline all we need from a movie? What happened to those seeds of peace?
Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is not about defining a generation, or even the music; it is about the gift of humanity in the raw (and I do mean raw ... be warned that there's a fair amount of nudity in this movie. It is Woodstock after all ...). It is not a perfect movie, but I encourage you to welcome the peaceful, innocent anthropology of it all with open arms. Center stage is the late coming-of-age journey of Elliot Teichberg, sensitively played by Comedy Central comedian Demetri Martin (Important Things with Demetri Martin). Martin sheds his almost too-literal social satire of important things for a compelling dramatic performance, his big soulful eyes caught in the silent web of obligations toward parents and the motel homestead. The small but (mostly) true story, scripted by director Ang Lee’s consistent collaborator Jim Schamus, and based on the real-life Elliot Tiber’s book, starts with the desperate fears of a family teetering on the edge of financial ruin, then accelerates toward the larger fears of a city of hippies moving to your backyard. It is a credit to the filmmakers that the audience feels that fear and intimidation from the inside, with both generations.
The old world Russian-Jewish accents of Elliot’s mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and his father Jake (Henry Goodman) contrasts with the entrance, via helicopter, of business-savvy hippy and promoter Michael Lang (John Groff). Most of the humor lies with Sonia and Jake as they work to preserve their motel business. But Elliot, because of the similarity in age, is the more stark contrast with the calm hippies, as he embodies that excessive worry of both a doting son and a caretaker to his aging parents, not to mention his closeted attraction to men. Even though they have the money to pay their mortgage after the deals are done, the family is still dysfunctional because Elliot has not found his true role. Helping him on his journey are the calming, iconic hippy-eyes of Michael Lang and the friend-of-a-friend transvestite hired for security, Vilma (a fantastic Liev Schreiber). The cast is more than rounded out by Emile Hirsch as a vet plagued with flashbacks, Paul Dano as an acid guru and Eugene Levy as the farmer Max Yasgur; but the gem of the supporting cast is in Vilma as a family friend to the Teichbergs and confidant who helps Elliot cut the cold, dead umbilical cord.
Despite the artistic edge we’ve come to expect from Ang Lee, Demetri Martin’s subtle performance is the poetry in Taking Woodstock. Woodstock was not a subtle event: hundreds of thousands of hippies with drugs and free love on their minds, slogging in the rain and mud to hear some music in a field, is rife with movie-rific images and epic sentiments. Even the script is not entirely subtle or free of cliché – there are just a few corny lines.
But, thankfully, the Woodstock universe as conceived by Lee is anti-epic, entirely mundane and full of regular people everywhere. Schizophrenic anxiety in Elliot is expressed with split-screen, to cover all the bustling activity around him, as if the weight of the center of popular culture is on his shoulders. He internalizes the fears of the small town. How are these people going to take care of themselves!? They’ll riot and steal everything, and if they don’t, where are they going to park? But the ingenuity and kindness of the everyday human being wins every time against the Fears of Event Planning Logistics, the Small Town Suspicion of the Big City Hippies, the Fire Code Inspections, Anti-Semitism and even the Mafia.
The use of split-screen is a kind of quote from the award-winning, 1970 documentary by Michael Wadleigh entitled Woodstock, the directors cut of which ran to four hours, cramming all kinds of images into the screen. But in Taking Woodstock the split-screen is a negative, a critique against trying to control more than you should, a critique against the mistrust of people.
Elliot’s journey is just beginning. With parental worry he follows his dad and Vilma as they chase yet another pair of mafia thugs down to the lake. But we get that the old Jake is just enjoying the chase. While the thugs emerge, sopping wet and cursing, we are struck along with Elliot at the beauty of the naked bodies washing and playing in the water, young people, parents, and kids. The sun shimmers off the surface. Then music, ever so faintly, like a siren’s song, emerges from the horizon. Vilma and Elliot’s dad encourage him to go see the concert. This movie is all about the journey to the center of the universe, in a Myth of Sisyphus way … but that’s okay, man. We can work it out.
Ang Lee will be remembered for his other (tragic) films, but Taking Woodstock is a true-to-life comedy, an achievement in itself. It is not trying to keep your attention with a science fiction gimmick or a revenge plot. And sometimes we should just thank God for stories with no vampires.