Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ang Lee Trips

Ang Lee’s films make retrospective sense. Lust/Caution was mystifying and unsettling, but the forward progression of the film constantly made the viewer rethink what they had already seen. Ultimately, Lust/Caution was a film about the fine line between the willing suspension of disbelief and psychosis as it relates politics, art and sex. Taking Woodstock has a similar effect, with the early scenes feeling slow, sentimental, and in some senses even misguided, particularly in the portrait of Holocaust survivors.

But the subject becomes belief itself, and in particular belief in the notion of liberation. Ang Lee and James Shamus (who like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala of the Merchant/Ivory team has become the literary amanuensis to Lee’s sensibility) exude a love of theater in both films. In Lust/Caution, it’s a production of A Doll’s House at a Chinese university as the Japanese invasion looms. In Taking Woodstock, it's a motley theater troupe from Vassar alternately doing Chekhov adaptations and taking off their clothes in the style of Julian Beck’s Living Theater.

There is also a novelistic sensibility at work here that is rare in film directors, who generally ransack novel plots for the purposes of film while eschewing the complexities of novelistic technique. In The Ice Storm and again in Taking Woodstock, Lee shows an ability to totally immerse himself in worlds completely foreign to his personal history. But it’s in the weaving of his tales without the usual resolutions and catharses that Lee shows an uncanny ability to include the kind of complexity more often found in novels than on the big screen.

Taking Woodstock is a succession of loose threads. The protagonist’s homosexuality is portrayed as innuendo rather than with the grand strokes of choice and ideology (so common to film these days). Significantly, the main figure never actually sees the concert for which he has been the prime mover. Meanwhile, his old-world parents, with their old-world fears and animosities, eat some hash brownies and totally loosen up. Yet after an initial white light experience, the refugee mother ends up crawling into a stash of greenbacks she has hoarded for years and falls into a stupor.

As Taking Woodstock makes clear, an enormous change has taken place, but it’s less a watershed than a form of evolution, and doesn’t necessarily yield a higher state of consciousness. If there is a moral center to the film, it’s the transvestite, former marine security guard (played by Liev Schreiber), whose very existence as an imaginative construct is a testament to the dubiety of certainty.

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