Ang Lee’s film of Elliot Tiber’s book, Taking Woodstock, is set to open next weekend. This will be the third Ang Lee film with a gay man as the gay character. Elliot Tiber was a semi-closeted designer living in NYC during the week and running his parent’s failing motel upstate on the weekends. And his memoir of how he used his position as head of the chamber of commerce in White Lake to bring the Woodstock festival from Bethel to his benighted community is a wild ride through the summer of 1969, starting with the Stonewall uprising.
Yes, as Tiber tells the story, he was at the Stonewall that fateful night in June. So we get another eyewitness story. But what makes Tiber’s story compelling reading is his own self-examination and his willingness to explore the relationship between internalized homophobia, sex addiction and sado-masochism. It’s explosive reading, and don’t expect to see this in Ang Lee’s film. After all, Woodstock is the ultimate feel good story, and in Tiber’s memoir, the combination of Stonewall and Woodstock are what began his liberation from internalized homophobia and a life of sex without love — but along the way, it’s not very pretty. Tiber doesn’t shy away from telling about his experience with sex at the trucks, in 42nd street theaters and in back room bars.
Rather we can expect Liev Schrieber in his role as Vilma, the ex-marine dominatrix drag queen, perhaps the most memorable character in the memoir, apart from Tiber’s quite seriously disturbed mother, for shock value. Schrieber may do much for the cause gender transgression and the wisdom of boundary crossing, since this character is a true wizard, magically running off bigots and opening minds. And Tiber’s experience was clearly amazing.
My experience of Woodstock was somewhat less liberated. While there were banners for the nascent Gay Liberation Front in the campsite where I was staying, most of the young men there were very touchy about what there affectional orientation might be (and thus not so willing to be touched). Some guys beat up one guy I know because he was verbally open about expressing his attraction to men. No, Woodstock was not Paradise for everyone. But that’s not why I am writing about the book.
I think Tiber’s memoir is extremely important, and shouldn’t be forgotten in the rush to see the movie. Every gay man (and lesbian and transperson) should read this thoughtful exploration of how our expression of love can be stunted and twisted by the self-hate we take in with the mother’s milk of our culture, so much so we can be completely unaware we are victims of it.
Tiber went on to become a novelist, a teacher, and most importantly for many in our generation, a happy gay man who found love. More than Ang Lee, I’d love to hear an interview with Tiber following the movie about what was included and what wasn’t.
That said, I’m really looking forward to the movie. But if you’re reading this, definitely go read the book. And let me know what you think of each.
Meanwhile, I just want to say that Ang Lee has made more interesting movies with good gay characters than Gus Van Sant. Interesting and good being the operative words.