Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock

I just saw Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock, NY. The concert, as the movie makes clear, was not in Woodstock but rather in White Lake, which is about 30 miles away. In real life Michael Lang, the then-young promoter of the Woodstock concert and often on horseback in the film, works out once in a while at the same gym I do, in the Emerson Inn and Spa. The film notes that its protagonist, Elliot Teichberg (aka Elliot Tiber), and Lang both grew up in Brooklyn not very far from my employer, Brooklyn College. I live about midway between Woodstock and where the concert actually was. During the summer of 1969 Jimi Hendrix lived about 4 miles away in Boiceville. He must have driven past my house, which was a small cabin then, when he drove to White Lake. I spent that summer as a janitor in a summer camp near Woodstock. I was only 15 years old and did not have the guts to ditch out and go to the concert. Even then I disliked crowds.

Taking Woodstock is a good movie. Ang Lee's direction, as usual, is crisp and sensitive. James Schamus's and Tiber's writing is excellent. All of the acting is very good. Demetri Martin as Elliot Teichberg is excellent as is Henry Goodman as Jake Teichberg. Imelda Staunton as Sonia Teichberg steals the show. She is great.

The film handles Teichberg's inner conflict about his homosexuality tastefully. But I thought that, like other recent movies about the Catskills such as Wendigo, it is unfair to the "locals". As the movie makes clear, there are at least two cultures in the Catskills. First, descendants of Dutch and Yankee settlers from the 18th and 19th centuries (for the most part the Catskills were settled almost as late as the American west because of a lengthy conflict and law suit about title to the Hardenburg patent, because the Livingstons' attempt to create a neo-feudal system by settling Scotch-Irish tenant farmers who were to sign three-generation leases failed, and because the Catskills are rocky, terrible farmland and have no natural resources except for their physical beauty, streams, wood and fish). Second, more recent immigrants from New York City and around the country.

An excellent book on Woodstock is the late Alf Evers' Woodstock: History of an American Town and his equally excellent Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock. The Catskills still has a remnant of true American individualism and there has always been an anti-establishment streak around here ever since the farmers used to dress as Indians and tar and feather the Livingstons' rent collectors. Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Hervey White selected Woodstock for an artists' colony in 1902 because of the area's physical beauty. Within a few years there was a division between the musicians, who moved to Maverick Road and the artists who remained at the original artists' colony on Byrdcliffe that is still there, where some of the earliest artists' lofts still exist. Of course, Woodstock is not White Lake, and the various cultures in Woodstock, the old artist culture which is still around, the weekenders, and descendants of the original townspeople have gotten along reasonably well, despite occasional resentments, and on occasion have married. The film depicts the people of White Lake as quick to exhibit prejudice, and although bigotry exists everywhere, I do not think that is a fair depiction of the Catskills culture, which I have loved for most of my life.

1 comment:

RFWoodstock said...

I saw this movie here in Woodstock with Ang Lee, James Shamus and Michael Lang in the audience. It’s a small movie from the perspective of Elliot Tiber, a minor player in the overall saga of Woodstock but definitely worth seeing.

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