Ang Lee, director of Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and his career centrepiece The Incredible Hulk (haha, just kidding), also directed Taking Woodstock, another film about chance encounters and personal transformations. In Taking Woodstock, the time and place is upstate New York, 1969 - the crisis: the investor group planning the Woodstock Art Festival has already been barred from holding their from Wallkill NY and the need to find another venue quickly. The solution: Elliot Tiber, the youngest chamber of commerce president in the history of the tiny-town of Bethel, NY, opens up his family’s “resort” to the Woodstock people as a headquarters, and helps them find a new concert venue on a neighboring dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur.
The film is about the Woodstock arts festival, but its also about a small number of the small-town characters unbinding their uptight tendencies through their encounters with the Woodstock people and the hippie travellers, Elliot tries drugs and explores his homosexuality - his overbearing parents try drugs and dance in the rain, etc. Max Yeager agrees to host the concert on his property as a rebellion against the town’s conservative population (who occasionally express their simmering anti-semitism and, at times, appear like they’re ready to launch a pogram against Yasgur and the Tiber’s).
The film presents a perspective on the famous Woodstock concert that pushes the music to the periphery, where it drifts into the centre an echo that’s heard across the rural countryside. Elliot attends the concert in the sense that he’s on the Yasgur farm while music is played, but he’s so distant from the stage that it’s relevance is primarily to affirm the historical setting of the film. Instead, the short-lived community that emerged, and the carnivalesque atmosphere that the concert created, is the centre of Lee’s focus with regards to the concert itself. Elliott slides down a muddy hill and takes LSD in a van with a pair of hippies he met by chance.
The reproduction of the hallucinogenic experience on film is a standard feature of virtually every hippie and drug movie ever made, from Reefer Madness to Easy Rider to Friday to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene provides directors with an opportunity to indulge their facility with visual effects for their own sake, without concern for the constraints of fantastical plot advancements. In Taking Woodstock Ang Lee places Tiber in a setting that was already decorated in abstract psychedelic patterns that begin glowing and moving after he takes the sacrament of the Aquarian age. Lee’s filmic visualization of the psychedelic is, in fact, fairly conventional, but it is also true to much of the psychedelic imagery of the era he represents. In a that vein it should be noted that one of the promotional posters for the film emulates the uniquely colourful ‘rainbow-inking’ printing technique pioneered at the San Francisco Oracle. One of the hippies metaphorically refers to the vast audience as an ‘ocean’, and Lee uses visual effects to represent it as such in his own psychedelic flourish.
|A scene from Taking Woodstock's Hallucination sequence|
A final point of interest is the character of Michael Lang, the young hippie who organized the concert and, in the film, is represented as an old friend of Elliot’s. The film is an adaptation of a heavily contested book written by Tiber, and one of its main disputants is Lang himself. Tiber is the centre of this film, and he positioned himself as indispensible to the organizing of the concert. Lang acknowledges Tiber’s role but regards it as minimal, asserting that some aspects of Tiber’s telling are altogether false, including the part where Elliot introduces Lang to Yasgur. In Tiber’s version, Lang is always kind to Tiber and appreciative of his ideas and always acting as an intercessor between Tiber’s family, the hippies, and his own cost-obsessed investors. Lang’s last words are in reference to his work in helping the Rolling Stones organize what ended up being the Altamont Free Concert, the anti-Woodstock where the Oakland Hells Angels worked as stage security and killed an aggressive fan (in self defense).