by Jef Burnham
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Director Ang Lee is often a capable, if not occasionally brilliant, filmmaker; but with Taking Woodstock Lee offers little in the way of new material or techniques in his telling of the story behind the legendary festival. Much of the failure of Lee’s Hulk can be attributed to his reliance on the stylings of Hulk’s previous (and original) media incarnation in comic book, the motion picture screen turning into a mess of comic book panels and flipping pages. It is this same reliance on techniques of 1970’s documentary/concert film, Woodstock, that prevents Taking Woodstock from being a completely successful original narrative film.
In order to present as much of the footage from the Woodstock Festival as possible, Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh employed split screen effects through the majority of the film, which ran 184 minutes (the DVD director’s cut runs 228). Much of the film is presented with a pair of clips running side-by-side (occasionally 3 clips), one often being an interview. In this instance, the technique is understandable. Ang Lee, however appropriate it was in the actual Woodstock segments of Taking Woodstock, borrows this technique to an unfortunate extent, leaving the more chaotic portions of the film a virtually incomprehensible blur of information. And yet in other instances, he employs the technique confusingly to show what a character is looking at, when a simple cross cut would have better served to keep the audience engrossed in the story.
Technical shortcomings aside, the story of how Elliot Teichberg (the fictionalized version of the real-life Elliot Tiber, played by Demetri Martin) turned his town into a national disaster area is perfect film fodder and makes for comfortable viewing, and I wouldn’t deter anyone with an interest in Woodstock from seeing it. However, a slight overemphasis on subtext might leave you feeling a little shortchanged in the plot department.
In terms of performances, Demetri Martin is surprisingly capable and subtle, as is Henry Goodman, who plays Elliot’s father, Jake. For me, the spotlight performance of the picture is that of Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a transvestite ex-Marine turned Teichners’ security quard. Schreiber’s performance does not ride on your typical man-in-a-dress humor, but on Vilma as a person like any other, who has chosen honestly, and despite societal taboos to live as a woman. Schreiber plays the role with such conviction and warmth that he steals every scene he walks into.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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