Taking Woodstock

by writer/producer James Schamus

It’s true, Ang Lee has made a movie that is not a suicidally depressing meditation on impossible love. His new movie, Taking Woodstock, is, rather, about happiness. Please come see it anyway.

Happiness, it turns out, is not a particularly normal subject for American movies, when you think of it. American movies feature protagonists, who experience conflicts, overcome obstacles, and, by the end of the movie, engage in heterosexual sex with women portrayed by actresses who, on average, make about one-third of the salaries of their male counterparts. The other male actor featured in American movies—the antagonist, who is paid between one-fourth and one-half of the male star’s salary—is either dead or humbled by the final act. These laws are buried deep within the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences bylaws, and can only be broken through special dispensation. And they result in films where what is achieved by the time the final credits roll is, as a rule, relief. I’m all for relief, and even exultation—their mass production is the economic engine that drives our entertainment industry.

Happiness, however, is a more elusive cinematic goal: it is not an achievement—it is not the result of a victory, nor is it a prize. But it is a feeling that Ang wants you to share by the end of his film—and sharing is indeed the essence of it, the essence of the small taste of the Woodstock experience he celebrates.

And so our protagonist, Elliot Tiber (played by the inimitable Demetri Martin) is an accidental one, at least by Hollywood standards. Stuck in his parents’ dumpy Catskill motel three miles down the road from Max Yasgar’s farm, he has goals, obstacles, dreams, frustrations—just like all of us. But, for one weekend, he and his family also have 500,000 friends show up in their back yard to help them sort out their destinies, to remind them of the power of love, a power that both clarifies and dissolves all goals and dreams. If Elliot never quite makes it all the way over the hill to Max’s that weekend, he takes a trip that takes him—and we hope, you—even farther.


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