Of the two dozen some odd movies I plowed through (and sometimes even enjoyed) while at Sundance, two in particular have stayed on my mind. As it happens, they're both experimental nonfiction works from Bay Area filmmakers. That's handy!
The movies are Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's HOWL, in which James Franco plays a young Allen Ginsberg reading and discussing his landmark poem; and Sam Green and Dave Cerf's Utopia in Four Movements, in which James Franco does not appear but that's OK. One reason these two films have stayed on my mind is that they have some intriguing things in common.
Both are works of poetic intelligence and singular personality, self-evidently labors of love. Both will be tough sells to mainstream audiences, and will depend on a special kind of viewer receptiveness to achieve any palpable measure of success. (Not that Epstein, best known for his Oscar-winning doc, The Times of Harvey Milk, and Green, for his Oscar-nominated doc The Weather Underground, need to worry about mainstream success.) The films are quite similar in structure, and even in theme.
The four movements of Utopia are these: "The Universal Language," by which at last some cultural context is provided for that weird old movie of William Shatner speaking only in Esperanto; "The Revolution," in which Green notes the absence of corporate billboards and golden arches in Cuba today; "The World's Largest Shopping Mall," wherein Green explores the otherworldly oddity of an economic experiment in contemporary China; and "Elegy for the 20th Century," in which he laments the "big ideas that turned out to be bad ideas," and counter-intuitively nominates the grim work of forensic anthropology as torch-bearer of the utopian impulse. I'm being reductive here, obviously, but only to emphasize the impressive range of the filmmaker's curiosity.
Green's piece was billed as a "live documentary," with on-site music performed by Dennis Cronin, Todd Griffin and Catherine McCrae, plus Green's co-director and editor, Dave Cerf. Utopia has evolved since I saw it as a work in progress at the Exploratorium last year. The real difference is the surety of Green's amiable and engaged narration, which now seems more essential to the overall experience. "I didn't want to make a documentary interviewing experts," he told his Sundance audience. "My patience for somebody talking is a lot more if they're in the room." He also spoke about the importance of realizing the project as a communal event, adding, "It's about utopia; do you really want to watch this alone on your iPod?"
HOWL, the movie, has four movements too: Ginsberg's first public reading of the poem at San Francisco's Six Gallery in 1955; an unseen journalist's taped interview with the poet from a couple years later; the precedent-setting obscenity trial from which City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti emerged victorious with a longstanding bestseller; and several animated rhapsodies, by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker, dramatizing the poem itself.
This is a nervy work, and it registers the poet's mind and spirit strongly. With such superb material, Franco had an easy job, and also a hard one, and he delivers the goods. Still, it's no surprise that the film's structural oddity earned it a mixed reaction from Sundance audiences. "We're expecting to start a stampede of Hollywood poetry films," Epstein joked at a festival press conference, acknowledging the uphill battle of adapting what Friedman had called "sort of the first spoken-word performance art" into the inherently visual medium of cinema. True enough: For me, HOWL offered the real thrill of remembering Ginsberg's brilliance, but also revealed the real and perhaps impossible difficulty of trying to make a movie about it.
In that recreated interview, Franco's Ginsberg describes his poem as "a promotion of frankness," which he considered "socially useful" for the era in which it was written. The film of HOWL seems similarly duty-minded; thank goodness it also has the good sense to give in to enchantment once in a while as well.
And maybe that radical optimism is the most crucial element that HOWL and Utopia have in common. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," Ginsberg famously began, yet he found a way to end by proclaiming "Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul." Similarly, perhaps, when asked what he'd learned about the plausibility of a human utopia from making a film that occasionally and inevitably testifies against it, Green told his audience, "You've got to hope, irrationally."