The harsh glare of the spotlight that brought Howl mixed reviews from critics on opening night of the Sundance Film Festival had melted into a warm glow by Saturday, when the Bay Area-made nonfiction feature played to an adoring audience at Park City’s Library venue. Programmer David Courier’s slip of the tongue as he celebrated "two of the most venerated documentary filmmakers of our time," Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Oscar winners for Common Threads and The Times of Harvey Milk), by praising how the two were "making their first fourway—I mean FORAY—into dramatic films" offered an appropriately irreverent frame for a film about Allen Ginsberg’s development as a poet and the fate of his epic "Howl" in a 1957 San Francisco courtroom.
Obscene only in the level of talent he displayed as an Allen Ginsberg transitioning from gawky romantic to mind-exploding bard, James Franco admitted to the audience after the screening that he had no idea why he, in particular, was chosen for the part. ("I always thought I’d be Kerouac.") But he had been reading the Beats since high school, and in grad school at Ginsberg’s Columbia, has been studying poetry, among other things.
The animated landscapes that offered visual LSD to accompany the poem and divided audiences the same way "Howl" might have originally put off ’50s stuffed shirts was by artist/graphic novelist Eric Drooker, who previously collaborated with Ginsberg to illustrated his Illuminated Poems, the filmmakers explained.
Epstein told the audience the project did not begin with them; it arrived on their desks from the Ginsberg estate, but they jumped at the chance to investigate. What they found: A cache of amazing historical documents to be plundered, pondered and, apparently, reworked into the bigger-truth drama genre. Epstein was still wearing his documentarian’s hat when he spoke about how the screenplay came together. The Trial portions of the film came from the actual transcript, he explained; though restructured, its theater of the absurd was unbelievably entertaining. Allen’s own text came from print interviews, and the screenplay, Epstein said, was "pretty faithful" to his words.
Friedman who told the audience his interest in the film came from his own family background (his father published a leftwing literary magazine and his mother was involved in alternative culture in New York) offered a larger context for the work, saying that though the ’60s and ’70s are most remembered for their protest movements and civic upheavals, "Allen and his poem represent the birth of the counterculture."
With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.
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