Clearly, Woodstock was more than just a festival. For the more than 500,000 concertgoers who made the trip to that dairy farm in upstate New York 40 years ago, it was a three-day invocation that summoned up music as a shackle-busting experience, an uncorking of generational exuberance, aided along by a massive amount of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Director Ang Lee’s experience with the event, however, was much more subdued but transformative nonetheless. It came via an old black-and-white TV. He was a 14-year-old middle schooler in Taiwan, studying docilely and relentlessly for his high-school entrance exam. And then he caught a brief glimpse of the muddy bacchanalia in New York. “It was an unsettling image,” he says. “Taiwan was in the middle of the Cold War, and America was its lone protector against the engulfment of mainland Chinese.” There was an American air base nearby, and Lee was used to seeing servicemen on the street. He remembers feeling unsettled by the images, thinking: “If America is not the good guy and the policeman, what will become of us?”
And still that glimpse of Woodstock was intoxicating. “Guys in big hair playing guitars. Something really cool. . . . You just have to worship them,” says Lee, who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. Still, the name of his new movie, “Taking Woodstock,” which opens in wide release on Friday, can’t even be translated into his native Chinese. If and when it gets to China, it’s going to be called “The Disturbance of Woodstock,” the 54-year-old director explains, or perhaps “The Woodstock Event.”
Lee seems truly amused at the idea of writhing, filthy, acid-tripping kids being reduced at least linguistically to a mere “disturbance.” Dressed in khakis and a plaid shirt, the filmmaker has just returned from a relatively long walk down Sunset Boulevard in uncomfortable hot weather, on the hunt for a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood of his hotel. His mien is that of a professor, and he repeatedly insists on referring to himself as a “bashful” person, a “shy” person. Yet, that reticence appears to be just his corporal persona, not his artistic one.
In his films, he returns obsessively to characters, often introverted or somehow hidden, grappling -- or busting through -- societal dictates. They include Heath Ledger’s laconic cowboy who faces homosexual desire in “Brokeback Mountain,” Emma Thompson’s evocation of the sensible, repressed sister in “Sense and Sensibility” and Wei Tang’s spy heroine of “Lust, Caution,” who becomes undone by sexual passion for the sadistic secret police official she’s trying to help assassinate. Even his famous martial arts extravaganza -- “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” -- is named after a Chinese proverb that refers to talented or dangerous people hidden from view.
Back to the garden
With “Taking Woodstock” Lee returns to the light comedic vein of his early Chinese movies like “Eat Drink Man Woman.” It is adapted from the real-life story of Elliot Tiber (played by Demetri Martin in the film), a then-closeted gay young man who enticed the promoters of Woodstock to set up their music festival at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, and used his parents’ crumbling, about-to-be-foreclosed Catskills resort next door as their business headquarters and exclusive ticket vendor. In other words, this isn’t a movie about Jimi, Janis and the Who rocking out, but one person’s experience of the Aquarian explosion.
Lee first met Tiber in the green room of a San Francisco TV station as he was traveling the country promoting his previous film, “Lust, Caution.” Tiber thrust his autobiography “Taking Woodstock” into Lee’s hands and pitched himself and his book as a kind of bookend to “The Ice Storm,” Lee’s film about suburbanites wrestling with the hangover of the 1960s. That piqued Lee’s interest enough for him to show the book to Focus Features Chairman James Schamus, his close collaborator who’s written almost all of his films. “It seems like it’s random occurrence, but that randomness happens all the time,” Lee says. “I chose to do it and I connect with the material. I think that’s fate.”
“Taking Woodstock” also offered Lee a lovely respite after 13 years of making intense dramas, in particular the grueling “Lust, Caution,” a WWII story set during the Japanese occupation of China. Lee describes the making of that film as one of the most intense artistic experiences of his life. “I don’t know if my body, my nerves can take it anymore. And that movie felt very personal, very scary to me,” he says, citing its attack on the patriarchal society that he had been raised to revere.
That film’s charged sex scenes, which grappled with ideas of sexuality as a kind of existential performance, were so graphic they earned the film an NC-17 rating in the United States. “I have to make [the actor] believe that it’s actually something beyond sex. . . . It’s really exciting but like suicidal.”
A wide range
Few directors have had as a varied a career as Lee, who’s able to shift genres with dispassionate ease, skipping from a martial arts epic to a sparse western, from a noirish spy drama to a happy-go-lucky baby boomer coming-of-age tale. Making films, with their beautiful three-act structures, is how he’s learned to make sense of the messiness and illusions of history, and of his own existence that has straddled cultures and continents.
He recalls coming to the United States to study, eventually attending NYU film school in the early ‘80s. It was then that he delved into communist books from China that were banned in his native Taiwan. “That turned my whole belief system upside down, and I crawled out, in a sense, lost. The whole establishment of Taiwan is based on the illusion that we’ll go back and rightfully recover our homeland, and all of that was a lie. That had a big impact on me.”
Film gave him a home. “Making those movies, somehow I feel more belonging. Like the story belonged to me, and I belonged to the world.” These days, Lee seems to work in dialectic between his Chinese and American films. In China, the filmmaking apparatus is less developed, but ironically, “film-language wise, it’s more free,” he says. “It’s more artistic in China because we don’t have a big film industry like Americans. So, the viewing habits, the distribution, the response is more free. Whatever I do they take. In China, you can mix three genres together and it can still be a big commercial hit. Here, it’s very hard. . . . The viewer has a way, a track of mind that if you deviate from it, you get judged. Or they distribute it in a very limited way. I cannot fight too much with it.”
His Chinese films also tend to be more personal. “The textures, I get from my own life experience,” he says. This said, when forming “Taking Woodstock,” Lee fleshed out the character of Elliot -- inevitably perhaps -- with aspects of himself. “Some of the leading characters at some point become you,” Lee says. “I think Elliot has a lot of me. I am somewhat shy and very reluctant to go outward. I’m not cool,” or, he begins to laugh, “hip. So naturally he becomes more and more like that.”
A curious director
Of course, the shy, dutiful Elliot -- with a certain amount of determination and chutzpah -- managed to become an integral part in one of the seismic cultural events of the era. The pull of the unknown, of psychic liberation, tugs frequently on Lee’s characters, just as it does for the director himself.
Ask him how he picks his projects, and he says simply: curiosity.
“It’s just like some kind of Lucifer that lured me into there. I’m just curious. I was afraid to go there, but I couldn’t help but peek in. I feel that each time I do something, if it gets deeper, it’s the next layer of honesty. An artist should face the inner truth and should be honest, and should constantly live on the edge and deliver something fresh. If my nerves can take it, it’s a good act. You don’t want to fall over the edge, but to see how far you can reach.”