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For Now We See in a Mirror, Darkly

By Daniel Carlson | Film | August 31, 2009 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | August 31, 2009 |

The problems with Taking Woodstock are best understood when viewed as a reflection of the youth culture at the time of the legendary 1969 concert in upstate New York: Namely, there are a lot of good intentions and some genuinely sweet moments, but too much of what goes on is disjointed and just uninterested in whatever happens next. For the kids partying at the show 40 years ago, this was understandable. They were living in an era that saw turnout among young voters at levels that haven’t been topped since while also encouraging an attitude of willful innocence about the world at large. That’s an interesting tension, full of interesting conflicts and questions about equality and youth and on and on. But director-producer Ang Lee and writer-producer James Schamus (working from Elliot Tiber’s memoir) forget that they aren’t telling a story in the immediate aftermath of a cultural event, but with the benefit of four decades of hindsight and experience and history. They don’t have to wonder what happened next; they lived it. And it’s that willful ignorance of the concert’s larger historical ramifications and the turning point it provided for 20th century pop culture that render the film more trivial than insightful. Hints are made at a more complex world, and there are moments where the story probes into the true motivations of the promoters and participants, but for the most part, Taking Woodstock commits the sin of being too shortsighted to do any good. Even rose-colored nostalgia has to compare the object of its affection with a less pleasing present, but Lee’s film feels cut off from the world that came after, and as such, it can’t be anything more than a superficial look at a time and place that deserve greater and more nuanced examination.

Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) — who often goes by Tiber — is a soft-spoken twentysomething who’s temporarily given up his dream of moving to California and working as an artist to stay with his aging parents, Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton), at their run-down motel in Bethel, New York. The first chunk of the film deals with his quiet, frustrated life, which revolves primarily around serving as president of the chamber of commerce and doing his best to stay in the closet. But as the C. of C. leader, Elliot’s in charge of things like permits for the local music festival he plans every summer, so when residents of the nearby town of Wallkill pull the plug on hosting the upcoming Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Elliot steps in and volunteers his hamlet in hopes of bringing cash and tourists to the area.

The sequences involving the gradual set-up and arrival of the concert staff and promoters have the potential to be the most involving, since they’re telling a famous story from a new angle, but Lee’s pacing is off by a mile. What’s worse, he and Schamus never figure out how they want these characters to play out, allowing hippies to be stereotypically groovy and the townsfolk to radically swing between accepting of Elliot to wildly hateful of his cause and even bigoted toward Jews in general. For instance, it’s Elliot who hooks up concert promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) with Bethel resident Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), a dairy farmer who puts up the land for the show. Max is at first happy to rent the land for $5,000, but upon learning that the Woodstock planners expect at least 100,000 people (which would eventually balloon to half a million), he calls them back to the table and asks for $75,000 instead. The film doesn’t deal with Max as a real person, only another in a series of unrelated obstacles forced to tie back in with Elliot. And yet this scene could have been so much more: Lee could have explored the massive financial concerns and gambits behind the concert, which didn’t start out as a free event for the public, and could have at least acted as if he knew that, three decades later, the Woodstock name would become almost synonymous with outdoor events meant to price-gouge their audience. The point is that a lot of people had a lot of different reasons to get involved with the show, but Lee’s film refuses to dig into the conflicting emotions of its disparate characters.

Once the main narrative is up and running, the film dutifully trots through the concert weekend as Elliot kind of coasts along, moving incrementally toward his inevitable decision to take control of his future. That’s a decent enough seed for a story, but the film too often resorts to predictable “wackiness” instead of genuine comedy; e.g., Elliot refuses recreational drugs only to have an epic trip; his parents wind up eating pot brownies and dancing in the rain; etc., etc. Lee comes so close to doing genuinely interesting things with his characters, particularly Elliot, who’s struggling mightily with the weight of concealing his sexuality from his parents. But that arc never goes anywhere, and neither do those of any of the other characters. It’s as if, in Lee’s attempt to create a movie about a mass gathering, he felt it would be fine to just record characters walking by without developing them.

Which is a shame, because Martin brings a gentle charm to his first leading role, and with a better script, he could have been allowed to do something amazing. He’s sweet natured and possessed of a dry, quick wit, but too often he’s swallowed by the scenery, including Staunton’s nutjob of a mother and the various hippies who tend to crawl all over everything. The segments with a local theater troupe are among the few that show any kind of distance or self-awareness at how some of these people are really just untalented drifters; their performances of “contemporary, happening” plays are amazingly bad even as Elliot clearly loves them for who they are, and that hint at a broader perspective would have made the rest of Taking Woodstock feel real. But Lee just winds up perpetuating the myth that’s grown up around the event instead of really investigating how it affected his characters. He gets caught up in the re-created spirit of the concert, as evidenced by the frequent use of dual- or triple-panel splits that simultaneously show three angles on an event, a device often used in the 1970 documentary Woodstock. The film becomes the latest commoditization of a vibe instead of an engaging story. There are fleeting nods to the fact that the world would continue to spin after Woodstock, most notably a scene after the show’s closed down when Michael tells Elliot he should come out to California later in the year for a free concert he’s putting together to be headlined by the Rolling Stones. He’s referring obliquely to Altamont, the location of a concert infamous for its Hells Angels security detail and the killing of a concert attendee. That wicked counterpoint to the Woodstock gathering would make for a fine sense of place in a film, but just as he never bothers to make the characters’ motivations grounded in reality, so too does Lee refuse to do anything with the knowledge that what was created at Woodstock would be so soon tarnished. His story has no foresight or depth, and that keeps it from being a smart comedy. If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know where you’ve been.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.