When half a million exuberant participants converged on Bethel, N.Y., for the legendary Woodstock Music and Art Fair 40 years ago this week, it proved a harmonious blending of two diverse populations: the young people who turned out to celebrate the festival’s ode to flower power and the older locals who largely made the festival possible in the historic Jewish mecca of the Borsht Belt.
Ang Lee’s new film, “Taking Woodstock,” which opens Aug. 28 and is based on the memoir of the same name by Elliot Tiber (born Eliyahu Teichberg) describes this unexpected intersection of cultures through the eyes of an entrepreneurial son of Jewish immigrants, who saw the festival as an opportunity to save his family’s failing bungalow colony.
Like the 2007 memoir, which was recently released in paperback (Square One Publishers), the film revolves around the family’s decrepit El Monaco motel — a collection of rotting shacks teetering on uneven foundations in White Lake, N.Y. — where cash flow had reduced to a trickle. The region had thrived during the early 20th century, when Jewish New Yorkers flocked to its accommodations to escape the summer heat; but by the 1950s, businesses were in decline as former patrons found they could travel to Florida for the same price as a Catskills vacation.
All over Bethel and nearby hamlets in 1969, the surviving motels are in decline, with porches sagging and shutters hanging off their hinges. Tiber, a closeted gay interior designer living in Manhattan, has been called home by his desperate parents to manage the El Monaco, which by that time is in such dire straits that the advertised air conditioning units are dummy boxes built into the walls of each room.
Motivated in equal parts by duty and guilt (his over-the-top shrewish mother often describes how she escaped pogroms in Minsk), Tiber becomes president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce and pounces when neighboring towns refuse to house the Woodstock festival. He has a permit for his own music festival and his close friend, the American Jewish dairy farmer Max Yasgur, possesses a cow pasture that could provide the perfect venue. Before long, impresarios descend upon the area, by helicopter and limousine, and set up camp at the El Monaco; then the hippies begin to arrive, espousing peace and love to the elderly Teichbergs, who are befuddled by their music and casual nudity but ecstatic as rooms and cash registers fill to overflowing.
Liev Schreiber plays a drag queen and ex-Marine who offers security services to the motel; Emile Hirsch portrays a burned-out Vietnam vet; Eugene Levy is Yasgur, who negotiates a savvy deal for the use of his land but becomes a beloved figure when he addresses the festival crowd; and Demetri Martin stars as Tiber, whose quest for personal freedom mirrors the spirit of Woodstock itself.
The seeds of the film were planted at 5:30 a.m. one morning in 2007 backstage at a San Francisco television talk show where Tiber was promoting his book and the Oscar-winning Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”) was discussing his Chinese-language spy thriller, “Lust, Caution.” The gregarious Tiber promptly gave Lee a copy of his memoir and delivered a two-minute pitch about why it would make a great movie.
“Usually when someone gives me a book, I walk around the corner and throw it in the nearest trash can,” Lee said, a tad sheepishly, from his home in Larchmont, N.Y. But something about Tiber’s pitch made Lee recall how he viewed his 1997 film, “The Ice Storm,” as “the hangover of Woodstock”; the film explored the consequences of free love arriving belatedly to an American suburb in 1973.
Lee also remembered how much TV news of the festival had meant to him as a 14-year-old in Taiwan, where police forcibly cut off the hair of would-be hippies. “And I had just done six tragedies in a row — I was exhausted, in the abyss and looking to do a comedy, something warm at heart and without cynicism,” he said. “I thought Elliot’s book could provide that material, as well as capture the spirit of the festival by observing the changes in the Teichberg family dynamic.”
Lee’s English-language films often explore his take on American culture; they have been so diverse — from “Sense and Sensibility” to “Hulk” — that creating them has required meticulous research on the part of the Taiwan-born director. But the Borsht Belt proved an easier study: “I am surrounded by Jews, working in the film industry,” Lee explained with a laugh. “And James Schamus, my screenwriter and creative partner, is Jewish, not Irish; his ancestors changed their last name.”
As Lee prepared to shoot “Taking Woodstock,” his Jewish friends and colleagues regaled him with stories of childhood sojourns in the Catskills. “I also felt I wanted to do this Jewish material because I know these friends and because some of our greatest filmmakers and films have a Jewish sensibility.
“I feel that Jewish people know Chinese people very well, that somehow we are related, in our emphasis on tradition and a certain way of life,” he added. “James, for example, understood me well even before I spoke fluent English; he would write my scripts as early as ‘The Wedding Banquet,’ reading Chinese poetry, philosophy and literature as background, and then try to write the dialogue, and I would ask, ‘What is that?’ And out of frustration, he would give up and just write the characters like Jews, and I would say, ‘Oh, that’s very Chinese’ ... in the way that people process their thoughts and how they go about their motivation and relationships.”
The Teichberg family’s experience with pogroms and resettlement also felt familiar to Lee. “We, too, use the term Diaspora,” he explained of Chinese immigrants to the United States and elsewhere. “My father’s family members were part of the landlord class in mainland China, so his parents were shot and his entire family wiped out during the Maoist purges.”
Lee’s father, the sole survivor, relocated to Taiwan, where the filmmaker was born in 1954 and, as the first son of a first son, was expected to carry on the Lee name and to help make up for the loss of the family tree. “But being an entertainer in my culture is regarded as shameful, so I always had this guilty feeling that I was failing my father,” he said.
His viewing of the classic Dustin Hoffman film, “The Graduate,” however, convinced him that filmmaking was not necessarily a frivolous aspiration; and Woodstock gave him a glimpse of the freedoms that were possible in the United States.
Elliot Tiber’s character in “Taking Woodstock” — which has received mixed reviews — eventually breaks free of his family entanglements and finds a haven in the environment of the counterculture. “But I am still forever alien, not so much different from the Jewish experience of feeling that your true culture is adrift,” Lee said.
“Taking Woodstock” opens Wednesday, Aug. 26 exclusively in New York and Los Angeles and Aug. 28 nationwide. For information about Tiber’s memoir, visit elliottiber.com.