Taiwan born Ang Lee has directed a dozen films since 1992, an eclectic mix of different genres, all graced with the same knowing hand. He works in a classic style, like the great craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden era. And though I think his best work has been set in Asia, mainly the Hong Kong Trilogy, and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” he has made a huge imprint on world cinema with English speaking films like “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Sense and Sensibility.”
His American subject matter has ranged from the civil war, (“Ride with the Devil,”) to suburbia, (“The Ice Storm,”) to comic books, (“The Hulk.”) In all cases Lee shows directorial authority, but too often, for me anyway, he seems to be illustrating stories instead of reinventing them for the screen. There’s no arguing the meticulous attention to detail, at least from the standpoint of covering material. But they feel long, not because of their running time, rather a willfully studious pacing.
Not so with his Hong Kong films. “Pushing Hands,” “The Wedding Banquet,” and “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, are witty, light and completely absorbing. With each new film Lee seemed to keep discovering the potential in both character and plot, with very little gimmickry. He kept growing, as a writer and director, but that was only part of it. There was an intimate relationship with the material that drove them. And finally, razor sharp focus on the elements that made each story important.
Lee’s American films are very different. Mostly adaptations of books, they’re respectful of their source material to a fault, but also, and perhaps because of that, a bit torpid. At first you think it’s due to the running time, in most cases over two hours. But it’s more than that; it’s craft trumping inspiration.
In spite of its supposed daring I found “Brokeback Mountain” long winded and humorless. “Ice Storm,” a downer about sexual ennui in suburbia is better at illustrating Rick Moody’s book than turning it into drama. “Ride With the Devil,” an expensive civil war epic, cries out for dramatic focus but delivers very little. And yet there’s still that undeniable craft, almost painful to dismiss. We admire these films because in style they recall so much of our filmmaking heritage. But they lack the daring that would make us surrender to them.
Now Lee and his producing partner, James Schamus, have set their sights on Eliot Tiber’s remembrance of the famed peace and love music festival in “Taking Woodstock.” The result is an odd, listless film that never finds the high spirited energy it wants us to believe in.
Tiber’s parents ran a dilapidated motel on the verge of foreclosure when a permit to run a music festival in a nearby town was turned down by the local city council. Sensing a way out of the town’s financial woes he helped the festivals’ producers rent Yasgurs farm. When a half million long hairs descended on the place his family and a few other land owners cashed in.
For those interested in the bare bones history of the festival the movie will have some appeal. The production is well staged, with a wealth of amusing details. A gallery of superior actors have put their all into vivid character parts; Liev Schrieber, Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano, Eugene Levy. But the parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole.
The film has a bemused attitude toward the hippie culture, and the free love and drugs that horrified a lot of the locals. There’s a lot of mud, pubic hair, and psychedelia, which now seem quaint. But there’s no drama to move the project along, no real sweep or energy, because after all, it was a music festival, not a battle. And we know what happened.
There’s an attempt to suggest that for some, the festival was life altering. Our hero, played by the amiable Demetri Martin, with the help of a little acid and a number of eager partners, discovers his homosexuality. But he didn’t need the several hundred thousand visitors to do that. Too much time is lavished on his parents, Jewish immigrants, played by Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton, who take their roles like refugees from the Yiddish theater. They may represent real people, but as screen characters they’re shrill and grating. Others wear their hippie credentials like badges, lacking irony or any form of self awareness. It’s tiring.
“Taking Woodstock” runs less than two hours, but as it ground on I felt it dragging. I wondered, what did the makers see in the material? There are no musical performances; the focus is entirely on the festival as an “event.” Yes it shows the organizers intentions, the local confusion, the logistical nightmare. But to what end?
If you really want to get a sense of what happened, grab the DVD of Michael Wadleigh’s excellent documentary from 1970, “Woodstock.” You can get it in the original 184 minute version or the later constructed, “director’s cut,” which runs 228. Whether you opt for three hours or four, you’ll get a torrent of great performances, a feeling for the energy of the moment, and a grand view of the culture through the eyes of someone who was there. Turn up the volume, grab a mood altering substance of choice, kick back, and contemplate the significance of it all from the vantage point of 40 years on…Without the need for a pup tent or raincoat.