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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 22, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 43
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Howl directors make film resonate with Queer youth
by Gary M. Kramer - SGN Contributing Writer

Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl created quite a sensation when it was read in 1955 and printed in 1956. As it was considered obscene, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books in San Francisco was arrested and put on trial.

Writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have now brought Howl vividly to life on screen. The film focuses specifically on the two-year period from 1955-1957, when Ginsberg wrote and performed the poem, and the subsequent obscenity trial.

In a recent phone interview, the filmmakers talked about Howl. They each admit to reading the poem back in high school. 'I'm not sure what I made of it then,' recalled Freidman, adding, 'Moloch was a buzzword in my high school to refer to 'the Man' - the powers that be.' Epstein concurred, 'I'm not sure I read it all. I understood very little of it.'

Although the poem is challenging, Epstein and Friedman were not intimidated by putting this work on screen. 'It's a risky film, but if we did anything less than that, we wouldn't be meeting the subject matter face to face,' Epstein insisted.

The filmmakers were prompted to make Howl because they wanted to create a film about creating a work of art. 'What happens when you put that work of art out into the world?' asked Friedman. 'How do you make a film about a poem and the creative process?' posed Epstein.

The answers in this film are revealed in the smart way the filmmakers show Ginsberg typing, having the letters on the page turn into musical notes, those notes becoming Kokopelli (a mythical, mischievous flute player), who turns into a jazz saxophonist, and continues from there. The imagery is poetic, playful, and incredibly striking.

'We were formally adventurous because we were writing a poem that broke a lot of rules and had an impact on the culture. We wanted to be different and startling, with a form that would resonate with the poem itself,' explained Friedman about the style of the film. Other threads, such as the courtroom drama explored the way the poem was accepted or not, understood or not, by others. 'It gave an outsider view of the 'in-crowd,' he suggested.

Given that the poem and the trial are more than 50 years old, the question arises if Howl resonates with today's Queer youth, who may or may not have read the poem.

Friedman offered anecdotal evidence that contemporary teens and 20-somethings are still fascinated with the Beat generation. 'One of the reasons we want to do the film the way we did was to bring alive that youthful exuberant rebellion the Beats personified. That any young person would identify with sexy young poets changing the world with their words. It's a wonderful moment to capture.'

And the filmmakers capture it perfectly. The images in Howl are mirrors of images of the day. A famous photo of Jack Kerouac smoking is referenced in the film, and many of the interview sequences are styled in the manner of the films made at the time. The trial dialogue stems from the original transcripts. Even the animated sequences, which were designed by Eric Drooker, who worked with Ginsberg on a book entitled Illuminated Poems, were done with Ginsberg's sensibility in mind.

The ability to seamlessly incorporate all of these disparate elements comes from Epstein and Friedman's work as documentarians. 'We're used to building a story out of a lot of different sources,' said Friedman.

Howl flows like the poem of the title, with verbal and visual associations that carry the viewer through the work. The emotional thread involves charting Ginsberg's unrequited love for Kerouac, his tentative intimacy with Neal Cassidy, and eventually his long-term relationship with Peter Orlovsky.

Epstein observed how the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. 'First we came to see what was going on for Allen emotionally and psychologically at the point where he found his voice and created this masterpiece. We found these three men who were essential for him to find his voice.'

Viewers come to understand and appreciate the arc of Ginsberg's love and by extension, how the poem was formed as a catalyst for his self-expression and examination.

The emotional and psychological background was also a critical step for actor James Franco finding the character of Ginsberg. 'We wanted him to make the role his own,' Epstein recounted. 'By the time he performed Howl, he internalized Ginsberg, and then watched a video and listened to tapes of Ginsberg - that was revelatory.'

The directors were particularly excited with the casting of Franco. Milk director Gus Van Sant suggested the actor for Ginsberg. (Fun fact: Epstein won an Oscar for his doc The Times of Harvey Milk.) 'Franco not only was a student of literature and read the Beats, his mom was Jewish and he was exactly the same age Allen was when he wrote the poem,' enthused Epstein.

The filmmakers were further inspired when Franco told them that Howl had 'the soul of a documentary.'

Epstein said, 'He meant that in the most complimentary way - that it's so informed by the research. We took that seriously.'

Friedman emphasized this point, 'We strive for honest moments of emotional intensity in all of our films.' He continued, 'The film is an argument for frankness. It's an example of seeing the world as it is and speaking the truth about it.'

© 2010 Gary M. Kramer


The Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival's final weekend
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The final weekend of the 2010 Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival offers up plenty to choose from, not the least of which is the Seattle debut of the long-delayed Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor prison comedy/satire/romance I Love You Philip Morris. For my money, however, the movie to see is Peruvian import Undertow. Simply put, this is one of the best and most emotionally moving motion pictures I've seen this year, and to say it must be seen in a theater in order to achieve maximum impact is a massive understatement.

The following is my take on a handful of this weekend's slate of films, including closing-night effort The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. Head over to threedollarbillcinema.org/10/ for more information on showtimes, descriptive capsules, and to pre-buy tickets.

The Adonis Factor
October 23, Noon,
Pacific Place

An agreeable (if slight) documentary that picks up where last year's festival favorite The Butch Factor left off. Director Christopher Hines's latest focuses on perceptions of body image inside the Gay community. It doesn't say anything all that radical or unexpected, but is still expertly made and certainly not without its merits. Rating: 2.5 (out of 4)

Baby Jane?
October 23, 7 p.m.,
Central Cinema

Camp drag parody of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? that sadly should be one heck of a lot more entertaining than it actually is. Had this been a half-hour short, I think writer/director Billy Clift would have been on to something, but at 95 minutes, the laughs just aren't quite sustainable. That said, star Matthew Martin is just priceless as Baby Jane, and the majority of the film's laughs are primarily thanks to his drag-a-licious performance.
Rating: 2 (out of 4)

Elena Undone
October 23, 4 p.m.
Pacific Place

What should be a tired and contrived storyline proves to be anything but in Clair of the Moon writer/director Nicole Conn's latest Lesbian romantic melodrama, Elena Undone. The film revolves around the relationship between a pastor's wife (nicely underplayed by Necar Zadegan) and a jaded novelist (the lovely Traci Dinwiddie), but instead of following the usual routine, it goes off in intriguing and sensual directions uniquely its own. While not completely rising above cliché, Conn's delightful effort is just engaging and original enough to make it to the romantic finish line relatively unscathed.
Rating: 3 (out of 4)

Eloise's Lover
October 23, 2 p.m.
Central Cinema

Pretentious and annoying, this Spanish import revolves around a young collegiate architectural student currently in a coma, focusing on the events in her life that led her to this particular state. It is also something of a supernatural love story, trying to hint at what could happen next if only the power of love could help her overcome her comatose predicament. Problem is, director Jesús Garay layers on the schmaltz in overbearing wallops, and any chance this ethereal romance could ever have had of working is quickly browbeaten into overly melodramatic submission.
Rating: 2 (out of 4)

The Fish Child
October 22, 7:30 p.m.
Pacific Place

Lucía Puenzo, the acclaimed writer/director of XXY, returns with a Claude Chabrol-like thriller that never quite lives up to its sinister and unsettling potential. While star Inés Efron is mesmerizing as a teen girl born into Buenos Aires High Society - reminding me of Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures or Sissy Spacek in Badlands - the central narrative never breaks out of the rudimentary and cliché. Stylish to a fault and filled with strong performances, the movie nonetheless is something of a disappointment, running in the same circles other (and much stronger) motion pictures have already done before.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 4)

The People
I've Slept With
October 22, 7:30 p.m.
Admiral Theatre

An absolutely dreadful romantic comedy about a woman, Angela (Karin Anna Cheung), who takes pictures of the many men and women she's slept with in her promiscuous life in order to keep track of them all. After she becomes pregnant, suddenly she has to revisit all of these past lovers in order to find out who the baby daddy is. I laughed once - that's it - the entire way through this putrid monstrosity. Director Quentin Lee and writer Koji Steven Sakai have crafted one of the more off-putting and masochistic scenarios in recent memory.
Rating: .5 (out of 4)

The Purple Sea
October 22, 9:45 p.m.
Pacific Place

A visually spellbinding Italian effort based on the true story of a 19th-century woman, Angela (Valeria Solarino), who refuses to denounce her Lesbian lover Sara (Isabella Ragonese) and in the process somehow convinces the church to proclaim her a man despite all evidence to the contrary. Superbly shot by Roberta Allegrini, the movie gets a little heavy-handed at times, but is so beautifully played by the leads and just so gorgeous to look at that none of that bothered me.
Rating: 3 (out of 4)

Sasha
October 24, 2:30 p.m.
Pacific Place

This somewhat surprising German import involves a young piano prodigy, Sasha (Sascha Kekez), who secretly falls in love with his instructor, the dashing Mr. Weber (Tim Bergmann), and becomes increasingly afraid his homophobic mother Stanka (Zeljka Preksavec) will find out. Writer/director Dennis Todorovic manages to keep things constantly interesting by offering up intriguing subplots that only deepen the impact of the central narrative. A bit long, and not without its cliché moments, the movie is nonetheless a strong, emotionally moving effort that left me solidly in tears.
Rating: 3 (out of 4)

The Secret Diaries
of Miss Anne Lister
October 24, 6:30 p.m.
Pacific Place

An engaging if not quite successful Jane Austen-esque love story based on the real-life diaries of Yorkshire heiress Anne Lister (superbly portrayed by young actress Maxine Peake). This movie has a real Pride and Prejudice feel to it, yet still never grabbed hold of me like I wanted it to. Director James Kent and writer Jane English just don't quite hit the mark, and while Anne's story is certainly an inspiring one, it just doesn't leap off the screen enough to resonate as fully as it probably should.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 4)

The Stranger in Us
October 23, 4 p.m.
Central Cinema

The strong, if not entirely successful, debut feature for San Francisco filmmaker Scott Boswell is about an aspiring poet who follows his partner cross-country all the way from Virginia to the City by the Bay while dealing with issues of neglect, abuse, and love - most of which hit home with startlingly visceral impact. But the movie is sometimes too cute for its own good, Boswell overplaying his hand and slathering on his message with all the subtlety of a slap to the face. But the movie is still filled with a plethora of effective moments, and the final scenes easily make up for many of the narrative shortcomings which occur throughout.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 4)

Undertow
October 23, 7 p.m.
Pacific Place

A stupendous Peruvian import (the country's submission for the 2011 Academy Awards) that's part romance, part ghost story, and part examination of the nation's cultural traditions. This movie is as emotionally compelling and as visually magnificent as anything I've seen this entire year. This is one of those motion pictures where the less you know going in the better, as writer/director Javier Fuentes-León challenges genre conventions in such a spellbinding way that this is one movie I can't wait to see again. A masterpiece.
Rating: 4 (out of 4)

Violet Tendencies
October 22, 9:45 p.m.
Admiral Theatre

An annoying and obnoxious romantic comedy starring one-time Facts of Life darling Mindy Cohn about a woman who tries to distance herself from her many Gay friends in order to land a boyfriend. This movie practically drove me up a wall, much of it feeling beyond forced and extremely false. It's the kind of effort where I pondered leaving the theatre before it was over, and it marks a serious step in the wrong direction for The Big Gay Musical director Casper Andreas. (Originally played at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.)
Rating: 1.5 (out of 4)







M.I.A. whips through Seattle like a typhoon
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Picasso Exhibition at SAM brings world art to Seattle
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The Sisters offers a look at Sisters around the world
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Splashy Sextet a fantastic live-art concept
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Pro-Gay rights band Steel Train set to rock Seattle
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Lucia an unforgettable triumph at Seattle Opera
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Deadmau5 spins the Paramount into a delirium
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Animation and Gays - Part 1: South Park
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A Dyke About Town: Joey Arias is an amazing Billie Holiday
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Howl directors make film resonate with Queer youth
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The Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival's final weekend
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Q-Scopes by Jack Fertig
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Spencer Day recommits to music after heartbreak
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Northwest News
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Letters
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Visit St. Petersburg in operatic style
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Nearly Dan with special guest Tom Scott at Jazz Alley
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Week 17: Dar Es Salaam
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