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"Howl," a multifaceted tribute to Allen Ginsberg's poem, is the Sept. 26 entry at Cinema Sundays at the Charles (Sunday at 10:30 a.m.). "Letter to Elia," a personal salute to Elia Kazan by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones, screens one time only at AFI Silver this Saturday (Sept. 18) at 8 p.m. Both promise to illuminate the liberating pockets of 1950s culture too often neglected in sweeping generalities about "the Eisenhower Era."

As the editors of "The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature" wrote, "Nothing could have presaged the explosion of 'Howl.' " The detonation took place "at a gathering in a converted auto repair shop on [San Francisco's] Fillmore Street on October 13, 1955 -- exactly one century, it happens, after Whitman published 'Leaves of Grass'." As the editors say, "with the first part of 'Howl': 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...,' Ginsberg opened up for poetry a culture of down-and-out Beatness, drugs, rebellion, sex and ecstasy in the midst of the Eisenhower and McCarthy years."

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The film's codirectors, Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman (Oscar-winners for "Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt"), have long been two of our most adventurous, incisive and empathetic documentary moviemakers. Here they stretch themselves to do justice to Ginsberg. They combine an animated version of the poem with a docudrama treatment of the obscenity trial against City Lights for publishing it. And their dramatic account of Ginsberg's early life juxtaposes a documentary-like interview with flashbacks to several love affairs. It should be fascinating, especially with James Franco playing Ginsberg (above).

I haven't seen Martin Scorsese's "A Letter to Elia" either, but it sounds as if it might be as revelatory and thrilling as Scorsese's documentary about his love for Italian cinema, "My Voyage to Italy" -- partly because Scorsese is again working with critic/filmmaker Kent Jones as a collaborator. This movie takes off from Scorsese's thrill at seeing Kazan's "On the Waterfront" and "East of Eden" and recognizing that they shared the sensibility of a filmmaker "who knew me, maybe better than I knew myself." Pauline Kael memorably wrote that when Brando said "I could have been a contender" in Kazan's "Waterfront," "he spoke for all our failed hopes. It was the great American lament, of Broadway, of Hollywood, as well as of the docks."

Barry Levinson has said that "On the Waterfront" had the same impact on him as a kid from Baltimore that it had on Scorsese when he was growing up in Little Italy. Did any of Kazan's films (or Ginsberg's poems) affect you that way? What were your transformational movie experiences? (Mine was Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch.")

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