Sundance 2010: ‘Howl’ premiere launches ‘rebellion’

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In what is certain to be regarded as a transitional year for Sundance -- at least, that’s the idea evidenced by all the festival signage bearing such slogans as “This is the renewed rebellion” and “This is the recharged fight against the establishment of the expected” -- the fest kicked off this evening with what amounts to new director John Cooper’s throwing down a gauntlet to those who questioned Sundance’s indie integrity: a screening of the challenging, impressionistic biopic-cum-courtroom drama “Howl.” Described by co-director Rob Epstein in his opening remarks as “a movie about a poem,” the film stars James Franco as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and details the intellectual and emotional wrangling that went into writing one of the 20th century’s most famous (and infamous) poems. Over the course of the movie’s 99 minutes, the actor delivers lengthy recitations of Ginsberg’s epochal, book-length work amid surrealistic animated sequences intercut with a reenactment of the landmark “Howl” obscenity trial (in which Jon Hamm and David Strathairn square off as the attorneys arguing the case).

Unlike many previous opening-night selections -- like last year’s Claymation drama “Mary and Max” and 2008’s emotionally potent gangster dramedy “In Bruges” -- “Howl” arrives not as a “premiere” (i.e., a film with some high-profile element, in Sundance’s relative terms) but as an entry in the U.S. dramatic competition. It’s a decidedly experimental choice that implicitly highlights Cooper’s game-changing impetus with the departure of former Sundance capo di tutti capi Geoff Gilmore, who bailed last year for a post at the company that operates the Tribeca Film Festival. “I decided, let’s just go for the competition,” Cooper said of his rationale for programming “Howl” in the fest’s pole position, “let’s just start this festival.” So did the experiment work?


Yes and no. The “Howl” premiere yielded a few laughs and polite applause -- and, notably, did not suffer the kind of mid-screening mass exodus that has characterized so many difficult Sundance offerings. But then, warm-but-somewhat-detached can’t exactly be directors Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s desired response to what is clearly a cri de coeur about a distinctive artist holding a mirror up to his soul.

Nevertheless, there was a compelling connection between the fest’s new mission and “Howl.” If infusing the fest with Ginsberg’s truth-at-all-costs poetry was Cooper’s intention, the choice was right.

Sundancers, consider yourselves warned of the impending “rebellion.”

-- Chris Lee

Top: David Strathairn gets ready for the screening of ‘Howl’; credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times. Middle: James Franco in ‘Howl’; credit: JoJo Whilden / Associated Press. Bottom: Festival-goers arrive at the theater for ‘Howl’; credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times