Aug 26, 2009

On Taking Woodstock

Without having made a single film that one could unequivocally call a masterpiece, Ang Lee has hammered out a niche for himself as one of the world’s most easily recognizable narrative filmmakers. You have to applaud the breadth of his filmography, but is he an auteur?

He’s certainly not interested in singing the same aesthetic and thematic notes for an adoring fan base like most directors who earn that moniker. Perhaps Lee, like Steven Soderbergh, isn’t equipped to. He doesn’t write his own films, frequently works with different cinematographers (Eric Gautier does fine work this time out) and seems to have a primary interest in subverting genre codes within some of the most well established modes Hollywood and off Hollywood cinema have to offer. The results have been nothing if not solid. He delves into ambitious project after project in workmanlike fashion and his hits outweigh his misses. Yet, despite all of this, I’m never left with the impression when watching one of his films that I’m in the hands of a master, a personally expressive film artist with something urgent to say. His latest effort, Taking Woodstock, does little to quell that suspicion.

I guess it goes without saying that this one is "based on a true story". I couldn’t help but feel a bit duped by Lee’s look at the run up to the cultural phenomenon through the eyes of a few rural Jewish town folk who helped make this countercultural throw down a reality in a fairly conservative area of upstate New York. Like the worst of Mr. Lee’s collaborations with Focus Features honcho and his personal screenwriter James Schamus, I was left with the impression that, although there’s a lot of handsome filmmaking on display and some pretty nimble thesping (how about Liev Schreiber as a Tranny whose a Korean War vet), very little is at stake in the story for the filmmakers. Other than dreams of Oscars maybe.

Theirs is fortunately not a gauzy, romanticized 1969 summer of love, but Lee and Schamus are unable to imbue the film with tension and a sense of purpose. Demetri Martin’s character, struggling to keep his family’s roadside inn afloat, decides that welcoming the hippies/concert promoters who have been cast off by nearby Woodstock is smart business. He partners with his sympathetic and Jewish neighbor, played by a restrained Eugene Levy, and helps the groovy youngsters and their very ungroovy team of lawyers stage the concert, while this interaction with the counterculture allows our milquetoast protag to drop some acid with Paul Dano and embrace his homosexuality (props to my boy Darren Pettie, who is nothing if not fun as his construction working loverman). Meanwhile the comedy engine is kept afloat by the stereotypically combative Jewish mother attempt at retaining order. Let it be know, the definitive narrative film about Woodstock has yet to be made and probably, if Taking Woodstock is any indication, shouldn’t be attempted.