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'Howl' is arty and difficult, and exactly right for the Sundance Film Festival

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

PARK CITY, Utah — We were not even four hours into Sundance John Cooper-style and you could already hear the banshee wail of disaster cutting through the snowy night air after "Howl's" screening Thursday on the festival's opening night.

Then the Greek chorus effect kicked in, all those voices scrambling over one another to be the first to call for a suppression of the rebellion new festival director Cooper had promised.

If it was rebellion you were looking for, "Howl" delivered it with a Mike Tyson gut punch, which left people winded, then windy, then downright angry. "What a waste," spit out one guy on my raging bus after the screening.

Last year the clamor and complaints were that Sundance had become too commercial, had gotten away from its indie roots.

So you might think when the festival sets the table with a tough, challenging, artistically experimental film, the collective conscience would have been more forgiving.

Not so.

The question becomes, are the Greeks and the banshees and the rest of the disenchanted right?

In a word, no.

In "Howl," writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have taken on the inherently esoteric task of examining Allen Ginsberg's book-length poetic lament of sex and angst among the not quite liberated youth of the 1950s. The poem, which gives the film its name, became a force field of controversy in the country's obscenity debates.

"Howl" would first take life in smoky San Francisco nightclubs where Ginsberg would read it and other pieces he was working on to rapt crowds — one of them included a very young Robert Redford, who recalled that connection as he talked about why the film was kicking off the festival.

The poem would end up in a courtroom where its visceral and explicit and exceedingly discomforting language would put Ginsberg's publisher on trial.

Now the film finds itself in somewhat the same predicament with a difficult subject and far from perfect execution being blasted from all sides. The filmmakers use an unusual narrative technique, circling back through complex passages of the poem again and again, in different forms (more about that in a moment), as they attempt to unravel its meaning, create context and explain the controversy.

You'll hear the same line played out at a club as James Franco in the role of Ginsberg reads it, passionate and fearless.

You'll see the line envisioned as an animated segment, using Franco's voice-over almost like a musical score, a melody rising as the animation brings the words to life.

And again the passage will emerge in the courtroom as attorneys — Jon Hamm for the defense, David Strathairn for the prosecution — battle it out.

There is no small irony in the fact that the discussion on the screen is the same developing off-screen — does "Howl" in whatever form, poem or film, have artistic merit? It seems many in the crowd would have found the assessment by Strathairn's character, who terms Ginsberg's approach bothersome and tedious, an apt description of the film. Was this word really necessary, Strathairn's prosecutor kept asking.

There are moments of brilliance in the movie, the animation is beautifully rendered, and Franco's performance is an elegant one that should redefine his career.

Although there are flaws with the end result, "Howl" is risk taking writ large by filmmakers Epstein and Friedman, and it seems as if they will pay dearly for their audacity.

"Howl" is not easy, and it is not commercial, but is it necessary?

Absolutely.

This tiny tributary of a film, far from the churning mainstream waters, is exactly the creative stream that Sundance, in its 26th year, is supposed to be fording.

I'm glad someone wasn't afraid to dip a toe into those icy waters, and I hope the chill in the air here doesn't send those who would consider pushing the boundaries of convention running for cover.


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