While some would call it middlebrow, I prefer to think of the Lee-Schamus project as classical. Director Ang Lee and screenwriter-producer James Schamus construct traditionally plotted stories in which characters struggle to be, become, and love. The vocabulary of cinema is marshaled to serve the narrative, full stop. Their conception of character development, drama, and conflict is usually straightforward, but they punch holes here and there in familiar packages, shedding new light. They are storytellers, and respect the relationship between their characters and the audience.
For their new film, Taking Woodstock, based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir of the same name, they seem unbothered by the dead weight of Woodstock’s cultural baggage, approaching the supposedly epochal historical event from one man’s sidelong vantage. It’s a trick they’ve turned before—and much more effectively. Their Hulk used a blunt comic-book hero as an unlikely model for psychological and moral shading. Their “gay cowboy movie” (Brokeback Mountain) wasn’t the sociopolitical grenade that many wanted or feared it would be, but rather a romantic-melodramatic duet, as powerful and limiting as such scenarios would imply. They’ve made a samurai epic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) a Civil War film (Ride with the Devil), and a WWII period drama (Lust, Caution), all of which eschewed grand statements for finely drawn individual stories. Character and story may always be primary for Lee and Schamus, but their selection of grand canvases for personal, even hermetic tales functions as a subtle critique of macro or “great man” approaches to human endeavor. While the larger societal and historical narratives are important, and serve to shape and define particular scenarios and relationships, they ultimately amount to shifting premises for a series of individual protagonists and their universalized experiences. But with Taking Woodstock their classic architecture falls apart. The film is misconceived, miscast, half-hearted, and hackneyed, and its narrative failures lead to questions of larger context that Lee and Schamus are aren’t particularly interested in answering.
Click here to read the rest of Eric Hynes’s review of Taking Woodstock.