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“HOWL” loud, but unclear.

“HOWL” loud, but unclear. (photo)

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Reviewed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Opening Sundance 2010 (and looking for distribution), “HOWL” is a film full of contradictions, wave upon wave of contrast and complication crashing over each other with undeniable power and, occasionally, incomprehensible purpose. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman interlace three separate moments surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s seminal (in every sense of the word) 1955 poem “HOWL,” giving us a reading of the poem itself, a re-creation of a 1957 interview with Ginsberg (played here by James Franco) and a re-enactment of key moments from the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial brought against publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti after “HOWL”‘s publication. There’s no scripted moments or added dialogue; everything is taken from the poem itself, the interview, or the court record.

So “HOWL” is a documentary with actors. Or a dramatic film that presents nothing more and nothing less than what actually happened. It’s a paean to the power of the spoken word that feels the need to enhance and embellish Franco’s reading of the poem with animated sequences. It’s a portrait of a long-bygone furor over a poem that invoked obscenity and homosexuality and other issues that are far from settled. It gives us mighty clashes between lawyers (David Strathairn for the prosecution; Jon Hamm for the defense) without telling us who, or why, these litigators have taken these positions. It shows a trial that in many ways ensured the fame, and infamy, of the very text it was trying to suppress. It’s an art film with big-name actors.

01212010_Howl2.jpgAnd while many of these contradictions and curious cases linger after the final image of the real Ginsberg reading his poetry, some of them remain as inspiration and some of them itch with the scratch of mere frustration. Yes, the sight of Strathairn upholding common decency and Hamm defending liberal freedom-of-speech, both in great retro suits, is stirring; it does not, however, tell us who Ralph McIntosh (Strathairn) and Jake Ehrlich (Hamm) were, or what motivated their decision to take the case from either side.

There are many moments like that in “HOWL,” but there are also moments of literary transcendence and visual wonder. Many of the animated sequences are clangingly literal — as Franco reads “HOWL”‘s infamous opening lines, we actually see a naked man crawl through the streets to shoot up — but there are moments of whimsy and rapture and terror, too, from a forest that reveals itself as a cluster of straining phalluses to a sequence where sainted holy madmen fly into a bronzed-bull-god building representing all of capitalism’s excesses and sins until it explodes, a scary hipster-hippie variation on the most indelible image of our time.

01212010_Howl4.jpg“HOWL” is not, thankfully, a museum piece or another shabby, shining icon of baby boomer hero-making. It looks at its own time, but you can see echoes of the here and now — how some will always rail against the unspeakable simply because they do not wish anyone to speak, how advertising seems to offer everything you might buy aside from the things you actually want, how sex freaks out America and how, when modern life drives people mad, we choose to change the people instead of modern life.

Franco’s Ginsberg is at his best in the interview sequences — candid and chain-smoking, offering how ” … there’s no ‘Beat Generation’ — just a bunch of guys trying to get published,” or saying that his poetry is the result of talking to his muse as candidly as he talks to his friends. His recitation of “HOWL” is occasionally a little too too, but, then, so was Ginsberg’s, and it somehow fits.

In the courtroom trial, a defender of “HOWL,” academic Mark Schorer (Treat Williams) butts against McIntosh’s insistence on clarity: “Sir, you cannot translate poetry into prose; that’s why it is poetry.” Leaving aside the question of if Epstein and Friedman have translated poetry into film — some will say yes, some will say no — that moment coalesced my problems with “HOWL”‘s fuzzy, freaky, just-the-facts-and-some-fantasy methodology: the end result is a film that could have used more prose to truly tell us what the poetry and prosecution both meant then, and what the poetry and prosecution both still mean now.

“HOWL” currently has no U.S. distribution.

[Photos: “HOWL,” Werc Werk Works, 2010]


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.