Monday, 2 May 2011

Howl


Allen Ginsberg was one of the most important poets of the 20th century. As a beatnik of the 1950s, his controversial poems challenged conformity, industrialization and dehumanization way ahead of his time. Howl is the name of his most famous poem, published in 1955. Two years later, the publisher was taken to court for violating obscenity laws. Howl, the film, takes us through that famous trial while giving us an insight into Ginsberg and letting us hear Howl for ourselves.


I love poetry but I have never been at ease with it, mainly because I like to understand what I am reading and many poems make that a challenging process. There are parts of Howl, the poem, that are fairly easy to understand; other parts are very obscure. And that’s why I enjoyed Howl, the film, so much. As James Franco, who plays Ginsberg, reads pieces of the poem throughout the film, we are treated to marvellous animation sequences which help people like me, who are more visually-oriented (even though I’m a writer - go figure), get a stronger grasp on what we are hearing. Strangely enough, this aspect of the film is what critics liked the least.


I happen to love the animation, but not everything about Howl works as well for me. Howl is not a typical film, not even a typical indie film. The courtroom scenes are fairly straight forward and, while not outstanding, they are done well enough, with some good acting from a strong cast (Jon Hamm and David Strathairn play the opposing lawyers and Bob Balaban is the judge; witnesses include Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker). Then there is a documentary part of the film, with Franco being interviewed as Ginsberg at the time of the trial. That is my favourite part and where I think Franco does his best work. Another part has Ginsberg reading his poem to some young adults in a bar. That works less well for me. A final part shows Ginsberg in the process of writing Howl and introduces us to the men in his life (Ginsberg was gay). This also doesn’t work as well for me, leaving me somewhat bored and without a clear sense of Ginsberg’s life and loves. But these five parts are woven together in an original and generally entertaining fashion.


Howl was written, directed and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and they are to be commended for making such an original and imaginative film about an important man and an important poem, a poem that is all about being willing to express who we are, and what we want to say, openly and honestly. In many ways, thanks to people like Ginsberg, we’ve come a long way with this since 1955. But nowhere near far enough. Howl gets a very solid ***. My mug is up.

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