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Sundance Begins With A Howl

More than 50 years after its initial publication, the tone poem HOWL is still a shocking bit of humanism, a cry for tolerance and a yell for individual self-expression. The poem's author, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, remained a controversial figure his entire life.

The impact of this envelope-pushing literary classic and the bohemian philosopher who was its inspiration make for an appropriate opening night for this year's Sundance Film Festival, the mecca of independent and international cinema that began its 10-day expedition last evening in Park City, Utah.

HOWL, directed by the documentary team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (whose THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1984 and was the inspiration for last year's Sean Penn-starrer MILK), is the first dramatic film from the duo. Originally, they had envisioned HOWL as a documentary, but the importance of the subject and the charisma of the lead character begged for dramatic interpretation.

In a standout performance that could be 2010's first Oscar-worthy one, James Franco gives a compelling performance as the young Allen Ginsberg, alienated from his Jewish roots, hungering for homosexual encounters and literary recognition. The author's outsider lifestyle set amongst the bohemian communities of New York and San Francisco is alive with vibrant atmosphere and eclectic energy.

The film is no traditional biopic. It’s taken almost entirely from interviews, court transcripts of the obscenity trial that followed the poem’s publication and readings of the poem itself, part of which is represented through animation. There are many scenes with Franco facing the camera as an interviewer questions him about his motivations, his influences and his unlikely role as a literary pioneer. His world view, shaped by his alienated childhood, his homosexual longing and his Buddhist philosophy, gives the literary provocateur a winning charisma that explains Ginsberg's continued influence and appeal.

The film's theme of individualism and rebellion mirrors the Festival's new slogan: “Reborn. Rebellion. Rebirth. Rebel. Renewed. Rebooted”. This year's event is making a point of reintroducing the Festival's original raison d'etre, as a showcase for envelope-pushing independent films, after years of being criticized as a Hollywood wannabe glamourama, with stretch limousines, exclusive private after-parties and corporate marketers trolling expensive goody bags.

Of course, this didn’t stop the HOWL party from being a must-attend event that literally left hundreds of people scrambling on the street desperate to be on the inside of the proceedings. Aside from lead James Franco, the affair also hosted the film's other stars, including MAD MEN hunk Jon Hamm and actors David Strathairn, Treat Williams and Bob Balaban. Sequestered in a corner was the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford.....a sure sign that this year's indie extravaganza was well under way.

Sandy Mandelberger.
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