After the critical praise of Attraction / Nerosubianco (1969), Tinto Brass was offered the opportunity from Paramount to direct a film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, a novel that contained satire, sex, violence, and plenty of dynamic verbal and visual imagery, but Brass had a personal project he wanted to make beforehand, and in choosing L’urlo / The Howl, he moved into terrain that would foreshadow his stylistic excesses in raunchy nudity, violence, and erotica – more so than in prior works – and thereby distance himself from mainstream filmmaking.
That isn’t to say the images in The Howl were short versions of the grotesqueries in Caligula, for example, but the controversy surrounding The Howl – a film that was banned for somewhere around 8 years in Italy, and shown elsewhere with certain cuts –undoubtedly made it difficult for another Hollywood studio to present a mainstream film offer.
Of course, that’s assuming Brass wanted to make mainstream films, or have a professional association with Hollywood, which seems unlikely considering The Howl feels like an exploding tanker of raw sentiments the writer/director/editor wanted to express after putting his own creative spin on formulaic genre entries during the early to mid-sixties.
The editing that made Attraction so daring was pushed even further in The Howl by telling a non-linear story through combinations of sequences that collectively form specific statements on politics, society, sexuality, or were the lead-ups to really rude gags.
According to Brass in his sporadic but generally informative commentary track on Cult Epics’ DVD, the premise of The Howl involves a young girl named Anita (Tina Aumont) arrested by the police during an anti-war protest, and while in custody, she’s brutally raped by the coppers before thrown into a cell. After her boyfriend Berto (Nino Sgurini, previously seen in Attraction) arrives and bails her out, he proposes they wed, perhaps partly to obfuscate her brutal experiences from friends and family, and presumably restore a level of dignity for Anita, and more selfishly, himself.
Smack in the middle of the wedding ceremony, Anita suddenly gets cold feet and flees, leaving the priest all aghast in his tall cap of bubble bath foam, and during her quixotic travels, she meets a man named Coso (Luigi ‘Gigi’ Proietti) with whom she has wild Alice-in-trippyland misadventures.
With Coso by her side, Anita hitchhikes, travels by train, meet an intellectual cannibal and his hungry family (including a diapered monkey), is raped by soldiers while a small mountain town is overrun by a harsh military campaign, passes through a tunnel orgy headed by a voodoo priestess, steals a boat, and liberates political prisoners held at the prison on the isle of Santo Stefano, a panoptic, horseshoe edifice built by the Bourbons.
A Quartet of Provocateurs
Any perceptible moment of reality in The Howl is fleeting; the film is essentially a fantasy collage that also functions as a bawdy political statement using film technique, graphic erotica, and absurd humour to reflect some topical events leading up to the years 1969/1970, which include Vietnam protests, student riots, and Communist tanks brutalizing unidentified sectors of Eastern Europe.
While one can isolate several Brassian touches – a brilliant sense of the absurd, raunchy visuals (he just loves them hairy female crotches), and excitable characters always on the go – The Howl deserves to be grouped with some of Europe’s most politically provocative works of the late sixties and early seventies.
Brass admits people have compared this film to the late-sixties works of Fernando Arrabal and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and one can also add Dušan Makavejev to the group because there are similarities in the use of film technique to agitate and shock audiences.
The brutal assault on the mountain town, for example, recalls Arrabal’s Guernica Tree (1975). Whereas Arrabal’s film had wimpy pacifists being overrun by soldiers who indulge in bizarre activities (such as sacrificing dwarves), Brass has his townspeople remain in hiding, during which time oddball characters roam the dangerous streets, including a man wearing a barrel, a half-naked pianist in a courtyard, and a bassist with a severed head wedged on top of his instrument.
Just as Arrabal was comfortable showing sex and frank nudity, Brass is equally adept by interpolating sexual elements in the assault, such as the rape which occurs off-screen, but is punctuated by seeing a blood-splattered Anita wash away the stains of the assault while dressed like a prostitute. The sequence then delves into a bit of surrealism when Coso and a clown-faced Anita enter a recording studio, push aside the town’s dwarf leader, and she howls into a microphone and causes citizens to emerge from their homes and confront their aggressors.
Unlike Arrabal, however, Brass isn’t a surrealist at heart; his metaphors and jokes are derived from the ridiculous, and there’s a cartoon undercurrent to his humour that progresses from a setup to a punchline. A simple example is the severed hand that’s nailed above a doorway – a shot that begins the mountain sequence. Brass later shows an armless man stuck in a narrow street, unable to reach high enough with his good hand to lift his hooked hand from an overhanging rail. Moments after, the man manages to flee by separating himself from the hooked tip, over which Brass adds a loud suction sound.
Like Jodorowsky’s Fando y Lis (1968), a film based on a play by Arrabal, The Howl also follows the increasingly bizarre self-exploration journey of a couple. The peripheral characters in both films are very strange – Brass’ philosopher cannibals are as surreal as the poker game In Fando where fat old women place bets from large tins of pickled fruit – and both sets of lead characters are always under threat from physical, mental, philosophical, and sexual aggressors.
Unlike Jodorowsky, though, Brass doesn’t attempt to cram the sum total of every creative and intellectual idea into one film; with the exception of Fando, Jodorowsky’s pivotal films – El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) - are brutal experiences because the density of metaphors, references and allusions are layered far too thickly, making the films tough to comprehend (particularly at 2+ hours in length).
Brass, though, is an editor at heart, and his approach is no-nonsense: scenes may exist to titillate, but by and large, he has a superior sense of tempo which ensures his films progress towards an end point. Jodorowsky tends to linger on visual textures – such as the epic parade of animal carcasses nailed to crosses in Holy Mountain – and he fixates on details that show a character’s baby steps from point A to B, as well as entire processes that a character must undergo in order to reach ‘the next level’ of a journey (such as the sequence that involves a decantered man, and the transformation of his excrement).
The Howl also begins as one type of film – a drama about a jailed student protestor - and quickly turns into an absurd fable. It’s a cheat of sorts, but the characters remain integral to all subsequent scenes, including the politicized montages. Brass isn’t as overtly political as Makavejev, but one could argue the political barbs as just as sharp – just more abstract, strategic, and quick-witted.
Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) similarly deals with male-female companions on a journey, but their story is often offset by vestiges of the film’s opening cheat – a documentary on William Reich. The documentary elements are eventually shanghaied by the director’s use of pornographic sequences and anti-communist metaphors which keep pushing the limits of an audience’s tolerance towards graphic images, as well as their ability to switch attention from one genre (the documentary) to a variety of others.
Unlike Arrabal, Jodorowsky, and Makavejev, Brass enjoys titillating audiences because of a guilt-free interest in sexual pleasure, and his shocks (violent or softcore) tend to be brief. The severed head that rolls down the steps of a narrow street in the mountain town isn’t the prelude to further dismemberment; it’s a shock cut meant to alert audiences that they should start paying attention, and be ready to interpret the collective meaning of elaborately edited sequences.
The four directors, though, were part of a wave of filmmakers who felt the use of taboo images were acceptable options to initialize audiences into a state of agitation. Brass used newsreel footage of Vietnam War executions in The Howl, and Makavejev interpolated footage of the Katyn massacre in Sweet Movie (1974); Arrabal and Jodorowsky, though, seemed to prefer creating their own horrors, since their custom visions drew from their surrealist background using their own horrific props and sets.
Animal killings of varying detail were also acceptable to some of the directors, hence the decapitation of a goose in the ‘Sperm Hotel’ in The Howl, the dead bunnies in El Topo, and more notoriously the cutting in half of a live bovine in Viva la Muerte (1971).
(In his commentary track, the death of the goose elicits no reaction from Brass, and one suspects the fowl’s death remains inconsequential to the director, or perhaps the bird was used in a stellar roast the next day.)
Humour in Horror ?
Even though the mountain assault in The Howl begins with a severed head rolling down the steps, the lengthy sequence has wonderful moments of insane poetry.
Coso is lined up against a wall with townspeople, but after the firing squad has mowed down the lot, he finds himself whole and uninjured. He stumbles confusedly down a cobblestone street, reaches into the lunchbox that’s never left his sight, removes a medical dropper, and squirts blood lines from the corners of his mouth, as well as a splotch on his chest before collapsing in the street. It’s a wonderful bit of absurd pantomime, and the scene is given a bit of bathos when Anita runs over and screams in hysterics before the befuddled Coso suddenly snaps back to life.
Brass also uses discontinuity to create humour, as in the London train station scene where the pair run down a tunnel, and their actions are intercut with a man running frenzied in the same location. When one asks ‘Who was that?’ the other replies ‘Jean-Louis Trintingant!’ and they take off. (Brass lifted the footage from an earlier film, Deadly Sweet, which had Trintingant’s character fleeing from thugs in the same location.)
When Anita is being raped by the soldiers and Coso searches for her, Brass cuts between the soldiers entering the shuttered house with footage of Coso running up the stairs of a modern building in the Brutalist style, whereupon he encounters the cop with whom he and Anita almost became the dinner of the philosopher cannibal. Noticing the man has ‘upgraded’ and is wearing a nice suit, Coso offers to shake his hand, but is prompted to shake the left hand because the man’s now a ‘left-wing intellectual.’ Coso then runs back, and re-enters the mountain town and its older temporal realm.
There’s also an aural motif that’s tied to an in-joke which Brass expands into the narrative. The film‘s original producer, Dino De Laurentiis, wasn’t happy with the Italian cast, because he felt a film had greater commercial appeal if it was in English, and the actors speaking in Italian would make the production harder to sell.
Brass has Anita and Coso discussing the need to learn English early in the film during a bus ride, after which a wordplay – “Break. Broke. Broken.” – is said by Coso offscreen. Those words soon reappear as the chorus of the film’s main title song (played over a spectacular burning bus sequence), and the words are often used in place of score throughout the film, as when Coso and Anita steal a boat and ‘break it,’ forcing passing boaters to pluck them out from the water; or when Anita opens the jail cells and allows the inmates to ‘break out.’ The three words always appear as a verbal stream, and Brass uses the rhythm to arrange the tempo of respective chase or action scenes with a Keystone Cops/Benny Hill pacing.
Ridiculous visuals are just as important, and the first sign that The Howl isn’t to be taken as a drama comes in the opening scene where Berto has come to bail out his fiancée. His entire interaction with the detective is by standing outside of a small white room where convex portholes contort the detective’s facial components like bulbous cartoon drawings – a fat nose, chunky white teeth in a magnified grin – and the detective’s snappy dialogue deliberately makes Berto feel like an idiot.
Intercut with these moments of cartoon craziness are striking shots of Anita readying herself after a shower, although the footage has an alternate meaning: her hair-teasing is harsh, her scrubbing and drying is thorough, and one suspects she’s trying to physically remove traces of the rape.
If that is indeed the meaning of her actions, then it’s also part of Brass’ use of rape as a shock element, like the rolling severed head, because when Anita later tells Berto of her assault, she does so by simultaneously dressing down to her panties like some flaky teenager. Intercut between her coy retelling is black & white, newsreel style footage of the rape where a mass of groping coppers take turns, some using their clubs. The realist elements of the rape are profane and ugly, yet their integration into the film’s absurd, fantasy framework makes The Howl uneven, and one suspects Brass' comedic design includes the assembly of the pretty, the striking, the crude, and the ugly.
The Definitive Tinto
Of course, a Tinto Brass film wouldn’t be what it is without some familiar Brassian vulgarity, and unlike earlier films, The Howl arguably codifies elements that became part of his shock repertoire.
An early signal comes from a scene where Coso and Anita pee on the windshield of a car after their first hitchhiking effort stalls due to ‘poor visibility,’ and the subsequent orgy scene where the characters drive into the year 1853, stop in a western town, and enter the aforementioned Sperm Hotel.
Inside the hotel, Fiorenzo Carpi’s music switches to a Bach fugue, and the four characters wander through rooms and encounter all kinds of scenarios: a S&M parlor, a woman fondling a goose (which later loses its head on camera), a school room with a panty-less headmistress (one of several shots missing in most prints), and an orgy room where a fat hairy man in a plexiglass cylinder jerks off, grinning like a giddy teenager. As the quartet pass through various rooms, the driver’s wife exclaims her joy for ‘the smell of smegma!’
Each room is separated by doors that sport windows with a sliding cover bearing a stark etching, and the set design gives the impression of characters moving through living erotic panels with varying degrees of vulgarity.
In contrast to the interior sets, Brass makes use of many real locations – parks, fields, meadows, a cemetery – to ensure his characters’ journey progresses from one intriguingly disparate place to another.
The tunnel orgy – which ignited a series of rumours in the Italian media of bad goings on in the De Laurentiis studio, and sent Brass and his team back to England for further filming - is a lengthy sequence shot in sepia where Anita and Coso come upon a mass of coeds, frolicking in their birthday suits while a black priestess dances with a perplexed chicken.
Brass makes full use of his editing skills in crafting a kinetic sequence with dancing figures, an occult ceremony, and outright voyeurism that encompasses plenty of pickles, beavers, and mammaries. The cinematography sometimes flips to the kind of commercial portraiture that’s also present in Attraction (as well as Deadly Sweet), and Carpi’s eclectic score switches to a trippy lounge-rock fusion with some truly awesome trumpet improvisations.
The film’s most striking sequences occur on the volcanic island of Ventotene, and in the Santo Stefano prison. The latter was abandoned around 1965, and Brass’ use of the crumbling fortress is quite striking, particularly the wide shots emphasizing the funnel entrances to the ringed courtyards, and the central watchtower where Anita stands, and Brass pans behind her using a distorted wide angle lens.
Of all the sequences in The Howl, the prison sequence is the only one that feels long, and part of the problem is the extensive montages of characters running back and forth, and later converging in a ceremonial parade near the end. It’s visual kineticism played longer than needed, but the reasoning seems to be rooted in Brass’ desire to keep layering his soundtrack with music, dialogue and sound effects, and interpolate further absurd moments to create a small symphony of behavioral insanity.
Final Efforts Before Salon Kitty
Brass would contribute to the short film I Miss Sonia Henie / Nedostaje mi Sonja Henie (1971) as well as direct two Franco Nero-Vanessa Redgrave dramas, Drop-Out (1970) and La vacanza / Vacation (1971) - two films that have vanished from wide distribution - before disappearing from filmmaking until 1976, when he emerged with the notorious Salon Kitty.
Unfortunately for fans, in the DVD commentary Brass doesn’t offer any insight into these changes within his canon. There are plenty of production anecdotes, comments on his cast, as well as explanations of the film’s murkiest references and symbolism, but his thoughts don’t drift beyond the 1967-1970 period, and a more thorough self-examination of Brass’ changing style during his stay in London is better found on the Deadly Sweet DVD (wherein he also provides a more detailed chronicle of briefly being considered for Clockwork Orange).
Cult Epics’ transfer is made from an adequate master, but there’s obvious compression in the PAL-NTSC conversion, and while it’s an uncut copy from Brass’ personal archives, the print isn’t in the best of shape: wear is apparent near the reel changes, and the colours lack the saturation levels typical of Brass’ work.
The Howl was propelled by an artistic urge that was more important to Brass than a Hollywood project, and for film historians, much like Jodorowsky’s interest in making Frank L. Herbert’s Dune during the seventies, it’s pure conjecture as to what would’ve emerged had Brass made the film that was ultimately adapted and directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Like Attraction, The Howl is likely to be regarded as erotica, and that’s not wholly correct. Both movies are fascinating exercises in film technique by a director settling into an identity with which he would achieve notoriety, and establish a long career making erotica; and they’re also crossroad pictures with which Brass could’ve moved into the mainstream.
Other Tinto Brass releases from Cult Epics include Deadly Sweet / Col cuore in gola (1967), Attraction / The Artful Penetration of Barbara / Nerosubianco (1969), Howl, The / L’hurlo (1970), The Key / La Chiave (1983), Miranda (1985), All Ladies Do It / Così fan tutte (1992), Voyeur, The / L'Uomo che guarda (1994), Frivolous Lola (1998), Cheeky / Trasgredire (2000), and Private / Fallo! (2003).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan