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DID YOU READ

“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]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…