Howl

 

Howl

Written & Directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

Animated sequences conceived by Eric Drooker

2010


Cast:

James Franco

David Strathairn

Jon Hamm

Jeff Daniels

Bob Balaban

Jon Prescott


Studio:

Theatrical: Werc Werk Works, RabbitBandini Productions & Telling Pictures

Video: Oscilloscope


Video:

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC

Disc Size: 38.45 GB

Feature Size: 19.77 GB

Bit Rate: 22.00 Mbps

Runtime: 84 minutes

Chapters: 16

Region: A


Audio:

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

English LPCM 2.0

English LPCM 2.0


Subtitles:

English & French


Extras:

• Audio Commentary with James Franco and Writers/Directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

• Holy! Hoy! Holy! The Making of “Howl (39:05)

• Directors’ Research Tapes (28:20)

• James Franco reads “Howl” (25:00)

• Allen Ginsberg reads “Howl” (25:30)

• Allen Ginsberg reads “Sunflower Sutra” & “Pull My Daisy” (09:00)

• John Cameron Mitchell interviews Epstein & Friedman (22:25)


Presentation:

Custom Paper Gatefold Blu-ray case:

BRD x 1 + DVD x1

Release Date: January 4, 2011



The Score Card


Introduction

It's San Francisco in 1957, and an American masterpiece is put on trial. Howl, the film, recounts this dark moment using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg to find his true voice as an artist, society's reaction (the obscenity trial), and mind-expanding animation that echoes the startling originality of the poem itself. All three coalesce in a genre-bending hybrid that brilliantly captures a pivotal moment-the birth of a counterculture. - Sundance Film Festival.


     


The Movie: 7

It is entirely possible that there are folks who are unacquainted with Allen Ginsberg’s epic and groundbreaking poem, or whose knowledge comes in the form of excerpted clips and phrases like ". . .angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night."  Most probably have never heard it read aloud by anyone, let alone by the poet himself or someone who has a feel for its language.  So here we are some fifty-plus years after its publication and the obscenity trial that followed, when two bright lads with several not insignificant successes in their vitae (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet) were approached by Allen Ginsberg’s estate to make a movie to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Howl.”


     


Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s movie begins with a screen filling advisory to the effect that all the words in their film were actually spoken by the real people involved at the time, gathered from interviews, letters, court transcripts and the like.  The film works on several levels: a reading of the poem, its explication, a fantastic series of animated images inspired by the poem, a dramatization of the trial and the arguments for an against suppression of its publication, a dramatization of Ginsberg’s life from roughly the time he entered Columbia through the decade following his writing “Howl”, and the tentative birth of a movement not yet aware of itself.  It’s all surprisingly seamless, even if the animated material – as good as it is in its own right – feels intrusive and unnecessary at times.  So says A.O. Scott in his NY Times review of the film: “It is as if an earnest, literal-minded undergraduate had set out to illustrate “Howl” without understanding the essential difference between poetic and pictorial imagery.”


     


The poem itself, not to dwell on its meaning or language – I’ll let the movie address that – is about self-expression as artist, as a sexual being, as a son, as a person in search of love and respect. “Howl” is meant to be read aloud, to be listened to perhaps even more than read silently to oneself. This, of course, is true for a good deal of twentieth century poetry, just as it is true for plays to seen and heard and not merely scanned on the printed page.  In this way, modern poetry is different from older poetry and novels in general. In its time-altering way, the entire 87-minute movie is a reading of the poem, with asides, flashbacks and on-going commentary within the film that supports and expands on its inception and reception.


The courtroom drama takes up perhaps half of the movie.  In it, David Strathairn, as the lawyer for the plaintiffs, puts forth as articulate a case as possible for the sense of censorship, if not its actual necessity.  He argues that the poem isn’t likely to be understood by the common reader and therefore those unwary readers need to be protected from its language which, for them, will appear to have neither context nor meaning.  It’s not a completely specious argument, unlike that presented in “Inherit the Wind” for the banning of the subject of Evolution in public school.


     


Against this, Jon Hamm, as the attorney for the defendant (the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in this case, not the author) considers the testimony of accepted and self-appointed experts in literature and art criticism, questioning the transitory question of taste, among other things.  As it happens it is the judge (Bob Balaban) who makes the most cogent argument in respect to censorship itself.  His comments are worth paying close attention to, even now fifty years later as the pendulum has already begun to swing in the other direction.


     


James Franco, most visible to moviegoers as Spider-Man’s nemesis, Harry Osborn, has found a number of interesting projects over the years starting with Freaks and Geeks (1997), eventually on to Pineapple Express (2007), Milk (2008), and most recently 127 Hours (2010).  In “Howl” Franco nails the New York Jewish intellectual of his period, full of himself and yet self-consciously, passionately, in search of himself.  Franco is, by turns, charming, exuberant, vulnerable, playful, longing, rabbinical.  His appearance and manner is transformed dramatically over what is hardly more than 10-15 years. He is the same person, yet not.  In any case he is never Franco.


The actor gets admirable support from his co-stars: David Strathairn in the unenviable role of attorney for the defense manages to make him not look ridiculous.  Jon Hamm, dressed in his Don Draper best, is a study in direct cross examination.  Bob Balaban, very judicious; Mary-Louise Parker, delightfully silly as a so-called expert witness; and Jeff Daniels as an arrogant, tongue-tied professor.  Taken by themselves I rather liked Eric Drooker’s animated bits and wasn’t quite as put out by their insertion as some critics.


     


Image: 7/8

Epstein & Friedman make use of a variety of image sources from grainy B&W documentary footage, to high grade CG animation, to contrasty neon green color (for the interview segments), to a processed dreamy B&W for Ginsberg’s own flashbacks, to a conventional look in color for the trial.  I didn’t spot any transfer difficulties, except for some minor intermittent motion difficulties. It was nice that there was little if any attempt to make the documentary footage more consistent with the rest of the material.  Quite the contrary, I thought.


     


Audio & Music: 8/8

A movie about language ought to have a clear, crisply articulated dialogue track, and Oscilloscope has preserved “Howl” in your choice of an uncompressed 5.1 mix or lossless 2.0.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about the soundscape, being mostly front-directed as expected with some ambient environmentals thrown in for good measure.  The courtroom scenes manage a proper sense of interior space. The contemporary cool jazz, be-bop and original score by veteran Carter Burwell, like the visual content, variously sourced, opens up the space from time to time.


     


Extras: 9

It is with the Extra Features that Oscilloscope transforms an interesting movie into a Blu-ray of must-have proportions.  They begin with another beautifully rendered custom gatefold paper box that permits easy, yet secure sliding of the discs (cf: Exit Through the Gift Shop) and continues with a number of useful bonus features.  The first of these is a kind of coffee table discussion between Franco and Epstein & Friedman that accompanies the feature film.  I should mention that the audio here is also lossless – something I don’t recall ever having encountered before – indicating that Oscilloscope takes this track seriously as well.

     

     


There are two production pieces: Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of “Howl” – a 39-minute piece in pretty fair HD featuring Epstein, Friedman, Franco and co-stars Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Treat Williams and Bob Balaban, among others.  This segment covers how the project fell into the hands of Epstein & Friedman and the various attempts to realize the poem into a screenplay. Casting, photography, animation, how Epstein and Friedman work together as co-directors and co-writers (one thinks immediately of the Coens here), and of course the Obscenity Trial itself are all given a behind the scenes going over. The “Directors’ Research Tapes” amounts to a bibliography/appendix of original interviews with Ginsberg’s friends and collaborators Eric Drooker, Peter Orlovsky, Tuli Kupferberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Steven Taylor.


     


There are two complete readings of “Howl” – one by Ginsberg in 1995 at The Knitting Factory in New York: the other by Franco. The latter is advertised as “audio only” but this is not quite correct.  Throughout its twenty-five minutes a single photo of Franco as Ginsberg is displayed on the screen.  It’s a bad choice, I think, being far too bright an image and distracting.  Oscilloscope should have either gone with no image or a slowly changing slide show.  This is the only negative I found in their entire presentation.


The box includes a DVD clone, but the DVD’s extra features do not include, as does the the Bu-ray: Allen Ginsberg reading “Sunflower Sutra” & “Pull My Daisy” from the 1995 Knitting Factory performance, nor the interview and Q&A at the 2010 Provincetown International with Directors Epstein & Friedman, moderated by actor John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch).


     


Recommendation: 8

However flawed you may find the feature as a film, or not, you are bound to find it fascinating on a number of levels.  Add to this, an exhaustive number of extras about the movie’s production, and Ginsberg and his times which take up half the disc space.  Warmly recommended.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

December 27, 2010


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