Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Brian Brooks
August 27, 2009 10:15 AM
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Rebel Rebel: Why "Taking Woodstock" Gave me Goosebumps

"Taking Woodstock" writer/producer James Schamus (left), actor Emile Hirsch and director Ang Lee at the debut of the film in New York.

In May, I was lucky enough attend the Cannes Film Festival where I saw Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock." I sat in my very crappy seat way up in the balcony of the press screening watching the film and found myself completely cracking up. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but the film brought me back to my childhood - except this time I could actually appreciate it rather than run away. America was both at its best and worst during that era. Best because as a generation, people my parents' age were willing to say our nation's leaders were fucking up and willing to go out on a limb and question culture and, basically - everything. It was also at its worse for reasons I think are all too familiar: racism, gross inequality, Vietnam. The contradictions, nevertheless, were symbiotic. Would the hippies have really been drawn to a festival of love, art and music had the generation been raised on a healthy earth, respect, no war and universal health care?

My birthday, October 14, 1968 is a date that I acknowledge when it happens but it's also a point of some embarrassment for me. These days, it's merely because it means I'm old, or at the very least, no longer young. But, when I was young the date made me cringe because it meant that I was a product of an era that at the time perplexed me. Anyone who was around in the '80s and watched "Family Ties" will recall Michael J. Fox's character, Alex P. Keaton. Well, I was sort of a less lovable version of him in junior high school because like Alex, I was dumbfounded when my parents turned on their '60s personae. Once, I had a group of friends over to my house where I grew up, and somehow we ended up in a conversation with my mother about when I was born.

"My son is a flower child," my mother told my fellow middle schoolers to my complete and utter horror. She went on to explain to my upper middle-class friends how she and my dad used to send me off to pre-school wearing flower-patterned shirts, plaid bell bottoms and moccasins and a bead necklace. Great! thanks Mom... Why don't you just light up a joint and break out that Iron Butterfly album and put it on the turn table - err... record player while you're at it.

So, I guess there's no wonder that I "rebelled" by becoming a second-rate version of Alex P. Keaton - with even the Izod shirts and topsiders (oops, I still have Izod shirts). I even sent a fan letter to the White House saying how much I loved and admired then President Reagan - the same dude who as governor shut down U.C. Berkeley to stop the protesters. And though I was still too young to vote, I helped set up decorations for a campaign stop for Republican George Deukmejian in my hometown of Whittier, California (yes, the same Whittier where Nixon is from). "Duke," as he liked to style himself, went on to win the governorship of California, that damn fascist. Anything I could do to distance myself from my '60s roots I guess.

Actor Demetri Martin who plays Elliot in Lee's "Taking Woodstock." Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Well, I can thank God I eventually saw the light, and though I never followed my Mom's footsteps into hippiedom (I opted for the more glam styles of goth/punk), though I did grow an affection for the period. I even started to like some of the music (Joe Cocker's version of "A Little Help from My Friends" is purely transcendental), and I'd always get sucked into watching documentaries of the era if I ever came across them, especially Michael Wadleigh's 1970 Oscar-winning doc, "Woodstock," which gets some decent cinematic shout-outs in Lee's film. And, I think I've watched Milos Forman's 1979 screen version of "Hair" about six or seven times.

While the U.S. was (and is) flawed, I feel "proud" that it could produce and sustain a generation of rebels willing to question authority. I mean, what's so great about a people who just follow the party line, make money, produce babies, drink two cocktails at 6 p.m. and go to bed after the 11:00 news - or Letterman on a big night? Blending in as a card carrying member of society may have its benefits, but it certainly isn't the stuff that's going to inspire a film, unless it's a reaction against it, of course.

"America was great and had the most popular culture in the world," Ang Lee told me at the premiere party for "Taking Woodstock" last month in New York. "Young people then worked against the establishment and for the environment, and against cultural norms and the power structure. It was brilliant."

Back in Cannes, as I watched "Taking Woodstock" I couldn't help but feel the polarization taking place in the screening, much like the era itself. Clearly some people, including myself, were having a good time with the film. I didn't care much that people seated immediately around me were only giving tepid reaction at best when the crazy performance troupe living in Elliot Teichberg's (Demetri Martin) parents' barn took off all their clothes and started screaming at their own audience. It was damn funny! And I sure as hell was going to belt out my laughter, as did some others in the theater. Like the era itself, "Taking Woodstock" seemed to cut people along sharp edges. Even indieWIRE's review of the film called it a "messy historical fiction." The New York Times somewhat concurred, saying the film lacked "the passion of Mr. Lee's finest films." Though it did give the movie some kudos and it certainly wasn't a breakdown bummer of a review. Maybe the film isn't perfect but neither were the '60s or the hippies. The Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury unfortunately begat heroin and drug overdoses not even one year later.

"Taking Woodstock"'s writer/producer James Schamus gave me a different perspective when we chatted about the film in Cannes. "It's a movie about happiness," he said. "It's a story about someone going from a state of unhappiness to happiness. How often do you see a film like that?"

In the film, Elliot goes from being a repressed closeted interior decorator to become an unknowing agent of history when he attempts to bring commerce to his parents rundown motel and their neighbors depressed Upstate New York community by bringing the Woodstock festival to their grossly ill-fitted community. As many of the reviews, including Roger Ebert's point out, the film has very few scenes of the actual show. It's a story about a group of people who are swept up by an era and find liberation. And for the record nay-sayers, Ebert seemed to like the movie too. One television reviewer here in NYC had the gaul to say that "people familiar with the era may be put off by the Liev Schreiber character" (he plays a transvestite). I mean, really? Don't you get anything? What a bore you must be... Just go off and sip your wine spritzer after work...

Party decorations at the "Taking Woodstock" premiere party in New York last month. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Still reviews aside, I'm going to "rebel" against my cineaste friends and just say flat out that took great joy in watching the film. I smirked with a devilish glee (at least it felt like I did) when the camera focused on the angry townspeople in the film protesting the hordes of hippies gathering. Somehow, it reminded me of when I stuck my body half way out of my friend's car in 1990 giving two middle fingers to these stupid people on a street corner in Whittier who were waving flags and carrying signs celebrating the first George Bush and the Gulf War.

Somehow, the film awakened my inner rebel if only for a moment and it taps the inner youth that never completely dies. At least I hope it doesn't. And what the hell, who says anyone should like the film? If everyone liked it, then I probably would've hated it. But, I do like it. It's not Godard, it's not "Citizen Kane" - hell it may not even be Ang Lee's finest (I'll just go ahead and out myself here, I love "Brokeback Mountain" and I saw "Lust, Caution" twice in a theater), but it's two hours that taps into that crazy whacked-out moment in history when the '50s were merely a bad flashback, and it was finally en vogue to go tell the man to go fuck himself. And having a blast while doing so.

Maybe I can't completely articulate why the era as seen in the story of this film has a special place in my soul. OK, maybe rebellion is just fun, damnit. Maybe it's worth it to have a focus on fighting against something, if only for the joi d'vivre. I went against the '60s when I was really young and became a fan as an adult (maybe I owe a thank you note to George H.W. Bush). The same rebel that made me an Alex Keaton knock-off at 13 is the same spirit that makes me a raging liberal at 40. But then again, as Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick once said back in the '60s, "Never trust anyone over 30."

Don't bogart that joint, Mom!

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5 Comments

  • bollix | August 31, 2009 5:50 AMReply

    I loved the film too. I viewed it as a great fantasy story about a true event. The acid scenes were faaaar out. Saw Taking Woodstock on Saturday, went home & watched Barbara Kopple's doc on Woodstock, and on Sunday morning listened to the music from. What a great slice of history, and Schamus nailed it by saying it's a story about finding happiness.

  • nhpbob | August 29, 2009 7:16 AMReply

    Great essay, Brian. Saw the film at an advance screening a few weeks ago with Lee and Schamus there afterward, and I and my friend thought the film was better than we expected. (Meaning...the mild buzz about it being "disappointing" got to us first.)

    It's a happy, realistic film about people on the periphery of a huge historic event. Why are people so negative about it? Granted, Demetri Martin isn't a dynamic character (or actor)...but that suits the arc of his character coming out in more ways than one.

    Also, kudos to you saying you've seen Milos Forman's "HAIR" about 7 times. I've got you beat by a few viewings. Though not a perfect film, it remains one of my all-time favorites, and it never grows old. Ironically....

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  • harriette yahr | August 28, 2009 4:42 AMReply

    Brian, such a great piece on so many levels - loved it. Cool to know these things about you too. I really enjoy stories that weave the personal into the cultural/historical in entertaining and thoughtful ways -- and you nailed both. A fave read, great writing. Now maybe you can post some of those Alex Keaton pics somewhere???? (I once had the nickname "Grace Slick"... for a very brief moment in time..... --hy )