Doc continues his exploration of some of Cult Epics’s most intruguing releases with an unusual early work from Italian purveyor of arty erotica Tinto Brass.
HCF REWIND NO.62. THE HOWL AKA L’URLO [Italy, 1969]
AVAILABLE ON DVD: from Cult Epics
RUNNING TIME: 95 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Anita is involved in a student riot and arrested by the police. When freed, she tells her boyfriend Bernard that she was raped by some of the police. Bernard proposes to her and Anita accepts but soon sees marriage as a trap. During the wedding ceremony, the two are just exchanging vows when Anita spies a stranger who beckons her. This is Coso, a jester. On impulse, Anita flees the wedding and takes to the road along with Coso, and by bus, by car, and by foot, they stumble into one bizarre situation after another……..
I m going to admit that I am not too experienced in the work of Tinto Brass, in fact the sole film of his I have seen is the much maligned Caligula, which I am a great admirer of, though of course that film was actually taken away from Brass and much altered. His work, which after his early experimental films seems to be mainly sex comedies, doesn’t really seem my cup of tea though one cannot help but admire a filmmaker who admits that much of his work is inspired by his favourite hobby, which is….”fucking in brothels”. The Howl was Brass’s sixth feature film and, though made in 1969, was not released until 1972 and was subjected to much censorship, most of it actually of the political kind including a quote from Malcolm X. A crazy, surreal picture, I found it to be a rather tiring, annoying experience. Being a fan of the work of Alexandro Jodorowksy, and having also become one of Fernando Arrabal after having watched through the first of Cult Epics’s Arrabal box sets, you will know that I am certainly not unreceptive to surrealism. The Howl, though, was to be honest a bit of a pain!
I suppose you could describe The Howl as Jodorowksy, Arrabal, Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini all rolled into one. I would also add a bit of Monty Python’s Flying Circus into that too. Now this sounds like a really mind blowing movie, but The Howl just falls flat, at least for the first two thirds. When watching Jodorowksky or Arrabal, I am rarely in doubt that the barrage of odd images and goings-ons that I am seeing have some meaning, even if it is vague to me, and it all creates a hallucinatory feeling that is very pleasant. The Howl just gives the impression of its creator standing at the top of a hill and shouting “look at me, I’m really ‘punk’ and cool, throwing everything into my film which of course bears that anti-authority streak that is so ‘with it’”, while the lightning-fast cutting felt like it was going to give me migraine and rarely gave me a chance to see anything properly. It prefigures things like MTV and that infuriating trend we have in films at the moment where every action scene has to be cut so you can’t actually see what is going on.
Brass seems to think that he can put any mad thing on screen, regardless of rhyme or reason. Our couple help set fire to a bus, escape from some philosophical hippie cannibals and take place in orgies and parties where animals are a little involved, but we also have a [very cute] duckling talking, a fully grown duck being beheaded, a fat man who just farts and burps, people talking jibberish and sometimes all at once, people singing stupid songs, lots and lots of tits, images of S and M, a man masturbating etc. There just seems little meaning to it all until around half way through where they venture into a town where the military are ruthlessly quenching an uprising and we are made aware that the film is in part an attack on the Vietman War and warmongering in general, replete with real-life footage from the Vietnam War and also folk like Hitler and Mussolini. The overall light hearted tone never really goes away though, something aided greatly by Fiorenzo Carpi’s sometimes ‘groovy’, sometimes just plain odd, music, and I will say that the film gets more bearable as it goes along, with the editing becoming more relaxed and we being given a chance to savour some things such as a prison escape and lots of speeded-up running around of the Benny Hill variety!
There is actually hardly any explicit sex on view and the bloody violence so loved by Arrabal and Jodorowsky is mostly missing except from a few firing squad scenes, but I did find one element of The Howl a bit objectionable. At the beginning, Anita is gang raped by police and she doesn’t seem too bothered about this though runs away from her wedding with a handsome stranger [though the fact that the wedding was taking place in a junkyard probably didn’t]. Later on, she is gang raped again, this time by soldiers, and she staggers around covered in blood, some of it coming out from between her legs, and yet she still doesn’t seem too bothered by it. I don’t know what Brass is trying to say here, if anything, and it really leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, even if you are never really given a chance to care for the characters. Female star Tina Aumont, who as Anita is either made to look beautiful or ugly like many of the characters, just wanders about like a zombie letting everything happen, while Coso, played by Italian comic Gigi Prioetti, just clowns around throughout without really providing any laughs. He obviously embodies the spirit of anarchy, but just comes across as an irresponsible nuisance.
These two do actually have some chemistry, especially during a dance, but we are given little chance to feel it. The camerawork is often staggeringly inept, such as panning to a character and then having the camera adjust to get the right shot, but Brass does have an interesting directorial style when he slows down on the one second cutting and actually opens The Howl with some clever mirror stuff which must have been a nightmare to work out. He doesn’t like to bother with establishing shots when characters are inside, preferring to dive straight in there. Outdoor scenes are often shot from a distance. The final section of The Howl has a nice dreamlike quality as Anita and Coso are returning to Anita’s world and encounter some of the folk they previously encountered, like echoes of a half-remembered past. The ending is nicely ambiguous and can probably be interpreted several different ways. The interior set design throughout is fascinating too, like the backdrops of a 60’s fashion show gone horribly wrong, but why are we never allowed to appreciate it?
For the most part though, all I really take away from The Howl is a few memorably bizarre images, such as that of a man in a gas mask jumping around with nude people while goose feather’s fill the air, or an ancient Roman-like general walking about with a lyre and a half-seen, deliberately fake lion. I mentioned Monty Python earlier, and indeed there were times where I could picture members of my favourite comedy show in the film. The trouble is, The Howl just isn’t funny. In fact it’s mostly an irritation. As for Tinto Brass…..well, I think I’ll pass on any more of his films unless they crop up on TV.
The DVD release of The Howl from Cult Epics includes:
*restored, uncut transfer from Tinto Brass’s personal print
*commentary by Tinto Brass
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