Directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
There couldn’t be a more perfect time to make a movie about Allen Ginsberg and his most celebrated work, “Howl.” The beat generation has enjoyed a revival as of late, as the hipster and alternative culture has adopted them as the godfathers to their respective “movements.”
Howl is in its essence a celebration of the poem of the same name as well as of Ginsberg’s (artistic) life and vision. It plays against the backdrop of the 1957 obscenity trial that followed the publication of “Howl.” Most of the film, however, is taken up by Ginsberg (played brilliantly by James Franco) alternatively reading the poem a couple of years later and telling a reporter we never see about his life and creative work years after the trial.
The poem is actually read in its entirety by Franco, and apart from the black-and-white shots of him reading them to a small crowd, it is set against a series of animated sequences that portray what is going on in the poem. While there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film saying that these animations are based on some of Ginsberg’s own drawings, the animations soon began to wear, and end up feeling extremely gimmicky. Just having Franco read the entire thing would have become boring as well, but I wish that the writer/director team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman had come up with a more interesting way to underline Ginsberg’s phenomenal work.
Apart from the poem, the film focuses on Ginsberg’s life as told through his own words. As such, much of the work here rests on Franco playing him. Anyone who knows me knows I’m an unabashed Franco fan girl but when he does work like this, it’s hard not to be. He immerses himself completely in his character without ever just copying him. It doesn’t hurt that his nasally soothing voice would make a reading of the phonebook interesting, much less a reading of Ginsberg’s magnificent poetry.
Parallel to the scenes focusing on Ginsberg, we get a reenactment of the 1957 trial following Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication of Ginsberg’s work. It involves Jon Hamm as Ferlinghetti’s lawyer and David Strathairn as the prosecutor interlocked in a battle of wits to prove and disprove, respectively, the work’s literary merit. While the outcome of the trial is well known (spoiler alert: Howl and Other Poems is still being published), it is nonetheless an exhilarating celebration and reinforcement of poetic freedom and freedom of speech. In Howl, Epstein and Friedman have succeeded in making a film about Ginsberg that deviates from the regular biopic form. Instead they let Ginsberg’s own words guide us through his life and works and the culture and movement of the time.
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