Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Caught in the devil's bargain: Taking Woodstock

Would-be interior designer and might-be abstract painter Elliot Tiechberg (Demetri Martin) gets starved out of New York City at the start of a very un-groovy summer of ’69. He heads back to the Catskills, where his folks run a fleabag motel and self-described resort that even at eight bucks a night can’t draw customers. Though he’s in his mid-30s Elliot looks younger. Though he’s secretly a less than straight arrow under his polyester suits he looks sufficiently trustworthy to his elders, or at least those who aren’t openly anti-Semitic. Elliot’s the youngest-ever president of the local chamber of commerce, a thankless gig whose greatest benefit is a free pass when it comes to getting permits approved. But permits and sheer desperation are all Elliot needs to help grease the wheels of history and ensure that Woodstock happens after the festival gets booted out of its original location. Elliot’s acting as middleman between the locals and the organizers also saves his family’s business and gives him an opportunity to finally break away from a vicious circle of codependence and repression. So everybody wins. At least until Altamont comes in December and bums the whole universe out.

Taking Woodstock is based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber. I’ve been wondering why his name was altered here to sound more explicitly Jewish. I can only assume it has something to do with justifying the wildly over-the-top characterization of his mom Sonia (Imelda Staunton, no holds barred), whose knee-highs, horn-rimmed goggles, incessant nagging and permanent lunge make her the most extreme overbearing Jewish matriarch the movies have seen in years. It may very well be an accurate portrait of this most unlikely midwife of one of the hippy generation’s crowning achievements, but it also makes for some broad and rather uneven comedy, which is not the strong suit of director Ang Lee, who along with his screenwriter/producer James Schamus was probably more attracted to the story’s mixture of sexual awakening and dissection of a pivotal moment in American culture. You could say Taking Woodstock is a little Brokeback and a little Ice Storm, but you wouldn’t quite do justice to the film’s own distinctions—or to the richer rewards of Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm, both of them movies with more focus, insight and emotional punch.

Better to just say that
Taking Woodstock is a reasonably good time, with some nice details, lots of nudity, heady nostalgia, more than a handful of freak flag clichés and a paucity of actual music, the idea being that those who in attendance who actually heard the bands were in the minority. Elliot never quite gets near the stage but he does strike up an alliance with amiable neighbour Eugene Levy, get some solid advice from a ass-kicking transvestite played by Liev Schreiber, crawl into a boogie van for a pleasantly touchy-feely acid trip with Paul Dano, and tumbles out of the closet and into bed with a hippy hunk who is quite possibly the only guy who went to Woodstock that actually likes Judy Garland records. There’s not a heap of narrative dynamics here, but like Titanic we all know how it’s going to end anyway. A psychedelic cascade of split-screen effects followed by one massive, mud-splattered hangover.

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