The two most intriguing films opening in Chicago this weekThe Social Network and Howlwould hardly seem to have less in common. Yet upon closer examination these disparate moviesthe first focusing on an artistic maverick, the second on a technical wizardhave some very interesting similarities, beginning with the highly individual nature of their biographical subjects: Facebook co-creator Mark Zuckerberg and gay poet Allen Ginsberg, respectively. As for the filmswell, they couldn't be more different, although both reflect the tastes and talents of their respective makers and, while both reach high, neither quite makes it up the creative mountaintop.
David Fincherhe of the dark, gloomy movies ( Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, etc. ) has taken the up-to-the-minute story of Zuckerberg ( played with frightening, unadorned intensity by Jesse Eisenberg ) and his cohorts creating the phenomenon that is Facebook, and welded it to his usual bag of cinematic tricks. So, The Social Network is shot as a thrillermostly in dark interiors with an ominous score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The tale of a social pariah inventing a way for millions of people to socialize on the Internet is irresistible but Sorkin's script mostly resists the tendency to exploit that obvious ironyto the good. Yet the entire movie, which has fine performances by an interesting cast, ends up having, in typical Fincher fashion, a creepy, nihilistic edge that leaves one feeling as much of a social misfit as its apparently conflicted subject. It all seems to come down to a guy just wanting to be cool and the material begged, pleaded, screamed for the black-comedy approach of the Coen Brothers. Next version, perhaps.
The balance, therefore, tips in favor of the defiantly artistic Howland not just because it will, naturally, be of more interest to the queer community ( always a decided positive ) . It's not just because "I'm not gay but I love to play gay characters" actor James Franco stars as Ginsberg ( and not even the nerd glasses and beard can disguise Franco's sunny good looks ) . It's also not just because out writers and co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman bring gold-plated queer documentary movie credentials ( The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175, Oscars for The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, etc. ) to their first narrative feature and have cast the movie with a line-up of gay audience faves ( Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Alessandro Nivola, Bob Balaban, et al ) .
There's more, but what really makes Howl such an interesting, though flawed, cinematic experience is that Epstein and Friedman, along with their star, really go out on a limb. It's a real art film, one that takes a lot of risks. In much the same way that queer filmmaker Todd Haynes eschewed standard biopic storytelling with I'm Not There, his movie about Dylan, Howl attempts to present a portrait of Ginsberg and his times through the groundbreaking poem itself. To that end, the filmmakers weld together several strandsGinsberg sitting for an interview with an unseen reporter in 1957, two years after the poem was published just as the publisher of the poem was going on trial for obscenity, the silly/serious obscenity trial itself, Ginsberg's first performance of the poem in a coffeehouse in 1955, biographical flashbacks touched upon in the poem, and visual animations of sections of "Howl."
The result might aptly be called a visual poetry slam. And though I didn't love all the disparate pieces ( especially those animation sequences that left me conflicted about whether they worked ) , they do fit together beautifully. Certainly, Franco's career-altering performance has led me to want to know more about Ginsberg. Franco is fearless and funimitating the writer's low growl as he sucks on the ever-present cigarette, lusting after his fellow Beat writers ( and conquering a few ) , in bed with his loverespecially as he is onscreen alone so much of the time. And one of the best things that Epstein and Friedman's artful film does ( just as their documentaries have ) is emphasize a seminal moment and figure in gay historythe moment when the idea of being unapologetically gay burst through to the mainstream ( thanks in part to that obscenity trial ) .
"Poetry is a rhythmic articulation of feeling"Ginsberg says, describing his writing at one point. That's the best description I have ever heard of poetry and that's essentially what Epstein, Friedman and Franco have tried to do with Howl. It's to their enormous credit that they have mostly succeeded.
The Oak Park chapter of PFLAG will present its GLBT Documentary Film Series, a four-part program that begins Sunday, Oct. 3, at the Oak Park Library, 834 Lake, at 2:30 p.m. The first title in the series, hosted by PFLAG, is Anyone and Everyone, in which families of diverse races and ethnicities talk about their gay children, followed by an Oct. 10 showing of Out in the Silence, which deals with a gay teenager being bullied in high school ( hosted by Illinois Safe Schools Alliance ) . OPALGA ( Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association ) presents Dangerous Living Oct. 17; the movie deals with the oppressive laws curtailing the freedoms of LGBT individuals worldwide. Lastly, on Oct. 24, the documentary Screaming Queens examines a gender-fueled riot that took place in San Francisco in 1966three years before Stonewall ( screening hosted by Illinois Gender Advocates and Howard Brown Transgender Services ) . Author, director and transgender activist Susan Stryker will speak following the Oct. 24 screening. The series is free and open to the public. See www.oppl.org or call 708-383-8200.
Chicago's first-ever South Asian Film Festival, which runs Oct. 1-3, will present 16 films in several genres. The festival's opening-night featureTwo Paise for Sunshine Four Aanas for Rain, from actor-turned-director Deepti Navalcenters on a struggling gay lyricist, an aging prostitute and her physically challenged 12-year-old son. Bollywood actors Manisha Koirala and Rajit Kapur, who star in the film, will attend the screening and post-event festivities, along with Naval, at the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph. Opening-night festivities begin with a red carpet at 5:30 p.m. Complete festival listings are at www.csaff.org .
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