Put down the pitchforks, and slowly back away from the ballots. Maybe now’s a good time to take a deep breath, look around, and see what’s been happening at Sundance this week.
THR: “Howl” proved the perfect film to kick off Sundance 2010, a festival that means to rededicate itself to “cinematic rebellion” and indie experimentation. “Howl” fairly howls its proud defiance of commercial filmmaking norms. It’s a heady flight into not just a particular poem but into the act of creativity itself, into how an artist breaks down barriers between himself and his art…
Every piece of film involving Franco is terrific, but the problem is that there isn’t nearly enough. The film barely sketches its hero and his emotional life. Some of this is even rendered in documentary-like revelations, about his mother and about his obsession with such Beat characters as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, rather than in fully scripted scenes.
The film never takes the leap into treating Ginsberg as a flesh-and-blood character but rather shoves him up on a stage or in front of a tape recorder as a cultural icon. Franco certainly delivers the performance, but the filmmakers haven’t given it shape.
The animation, done in Thailand, is outstanding. If anything, you’d like to rerun just those sections, as “Howl” rages on the soundtrack, over and over again. They have a hallucinogenic feel that fits the poem like a glove.
The obscenity trial, frankly, could get lifted out, and the film would only improve. The courtroom footage is stiff and unconvincing. You get little sense of any of the personalities involved or what’s at stake for them. Here especially the filmmakers’ limited experience in feature filmmaking shows.
But what’s cinematic experimentation without a few failures in the lab? Maybe that’s why “Howl” is so appealing: The filmmakers don’t get everything right but their passion for Ginsberg’s genius and their excitement over trying to deconstruction a literary master work is contagious. A more perfect film might have been just a teensy-weensy dull.
Allen Ginsberg himself, reading from “America” March, 1956: