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Sharkey on Sundance: In defense of 'Howl'

January 22, 2010 |  9:06 am

Howl

We’re not even 24 hours into Sundance John Cooper-style and you can already hear the banshee wail of disaster that lifted into the snowy night air after “Howl’s” screening Thursday on the festival’s opening night.

It’s the Greek chorus effect, all those voices scrambling over each other to be the first to call for a suppression of the rebellion Cooper promised, and I would argue, delivered with a Mike Tyson gut punch, which left people winded, then windy.

Last year they were chanting 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, it would not be hit with a tidal wave of criticism.  But it has been.

Are the Greeks and the banshees right? In a word, no.

In “Howl”, writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have taken on the inherently esoteric task of examining the Allen Ginsberg poem that became a force field of controversy in the country’s ‘50s-era obscenity debates and tried to shape it into a cinematic tale.

Not an easy subject and far from perfect in its execution. But there are moments of soaring brilliance, with an elegant performance by James Franco as Ginsberg that should redefine his career. The filmmakers use an unusual narrative form, circling back through complex passages of Howl again and again as they unravel its meaning, create context.

We hear snatches of the poem in the smoky clubs where Ginsberg first read it, set like music to animation with Franco’s voice-over providing the melody, and again 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/”Howl” have artistic merit? It seems many in the crowd would have agreed with Strathairn, who found Ginsberg’s approach bothersome, tedious. Was this word really necessary? he kept asking.

“Howl” is not easy, and not commercial, but is it necessary? Absolutely. It is a tiny tributary of a movie, far from those churning mainstream waters, and quintessentially so, which seems exactly the creative stream that Sundance in its 26th year is supposed to be fording.

--Betsy Sharkey, film critic

Caption: James Franco in a scene from "Howl." Credit: JoJo Whilden/AP           

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