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Movie Review: Howl
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Howl movie posterHowl
Directed by Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, Todd Rotondi, Mary-Louise Parker
UK Release date: February 25, 2011

16:10pm Screen 3 in the basement of the Cornerhouse, the missus and I alone in the dark, a screen no bigger than 15×10 feet, making this feel like a slideshow presentation and the film starts in greyscale, in a smoky basement cafe in 1955 San Fransisco…

In 1955, a 29-year-old unpublished poet realised the American Dream in a four-part poem called Howl, a poem that would become an obscene ode to the struggle of his displaced lost generation, post WWII when the creation of ‘teenager’ also created a whole slew of new problems for the new transition between child and man.

“What would my father think of Howl?” Ginsberg wondered, a typical notion of self examination and the constant need to prove to parents that, yes, you will find a job, even if it is not in their footsteps. Ginsberg would soon find out two years later in 1957 that it isn’t just what his father thinks, but the general public when the poem became infamous when his publisher was thrust into a court trial for the distribution of obscene materials.

James Franco stars as a relatively pitch perfect young Allen Ginsberg, perfect in the sense that I assume his characterisation is true. Without resorting to videos online, I will sit with the idea that Franco can act well enough to portray such a person with aplomb. With what seems like a stick-on beard however, and his James Dean-esque stature, you could be hard pressed to find the ‘striking’ similarities in Franco and Ginsberg. As with any biopic, artistic license is stretched. In essence, Franco’s cadence matches Ginsberg and is enough to sell it.

It also comes as no shock that Jon Hamm and David Strathairn, playing court defense and prosecution respectively, are in such a film, set in the 1950s. Both rather strait-laced seemingly, and pardon the obviousness on this, walked off the set of Mad Men, which for Hamm does not entirely change any perspective on his acting range, although in Howl in a scene of an extreme close-up, Hamm shows a stoic and measured performance that wins the trial and the audience. This is an example of typecasting however that Hamm and Strathairn should try to avoid in the future. The courtroom scenes are a serious departure from the animation and the Franco pieces, but it does not drag because of it.

Howl, John Hamm

Ironically, Howl is scarily reminiscent of another film; The Notorious Bettie Page Upon viewing the opening credits, Strathairn appears as a senator, presiding over a case of distribution of obscene materials related to Bettie Page. It now seems fitting that he was a choice for Howl. Unfortunately, for all it’s gloss, The Notorious Bettie Page was not well received by Bettie Page herself, stating it was not the complete truth, which leads me to think that while Howl was accepted by the Ginsberg Estate, whether Ginsberg himself would see ‘merit’ in this film is an unknown prospect.

I don’t wish to repeat anything that may have been said before, of course the poem has been around for decades and in retrospect, I can only add comment to that and in current society it is considerably tame by today’s standards, which leads me into a critique of the poem and it’s use in the film;

Given that this was written in the supposed Beat Generation, of which Ginsberg states “There is no Beat Generation, just a bunch of guys wanting to get published,” this poem was a love letter to Jack Kerouac, author of the book On The Road‘ [soon to be made into a film]; Neal Cassady; and an ode to Carl Solomon and the apparent solitude and neurosis of the teenage/young adult writer. Most writing is ultimately neurotic as poets, artists tend and will write solely from experience, and it’s this that people want to read. It contains pain, suffering, longing, and the psychologically damaging aspects of Ginsberg’s past, and the images in this film reminded me of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but only because that is the only film you can compare and attribute to this.

Due to the use of profanity in the poem, it went to the obscenity trial under the assumption that it held no literary value to the fraternity of literature as a whole. If, like me, you have an interest in the Beat poets [although my bias is stronger towards Charles Bukowski, an associated writer, but not inclusive], but due to age, discover this stuff far too long after, this is the reason why such a film would appeal to me or you, with any modicum of interest in literature, poetry, or not.

Thanks to the trial, the poem became notorious, infamous even, all thanks to the controversy surrounding it, not unlike today’s vapid media-hungry trolls trying to be famous for fame’s sake. That analogy should not be used though in context to this. No one is shocked anymore and a poem like this calibre, even itself released today would barely cause a ripple.

Jeff Daniels, closely associated in my mind as the comedy double act with Jim Carrey, plays a character witness University Professor so stubborn and so ignorant that you wish for more serious roles for Daniels in the future. If memory serves correct, he considers the poem “crude, and without literary merit” to which Hamm shoots his blatant ignorance down on the notion that, like most occurrences today, had not actually spent much time to consider it properly. It reminds me of people who complain about television shows nowadays when their finger could clearly just change the channel!

Throughout Franco’s greyscale oratory, we are treated to colour CGI animation with vivid spirited use of Van Gogh and other visuals to guide what could have been a quite boring wordy segment along, allowing you to visualise elements of the poem. However, you would hope that an animation would use the words of the poem as reference, as some of it was visually striking but also distracting from the words. There was shades of the film Metropolis, an obvious influence, but it made sense.

The film is cleverly edited due to the fact that the poem in itself is very long, the repetition of lines add to the importance of such words, profane or otherwise. Treat Williams playing another more enlightened Professor adds when asked about merit and how it would read if other words were replaced states,”You cannot translate poetry into prose, that’s why it’s poetry”.

Bob Balaban, a rather liberal and composed judge and possibly far too laissez faire in Frisco, acquits this poem stating that this would lead to “….greater liberality of poems of it’s type” which ultimately it has, in all types of media. It is an example of the freedom we afford ourselves today that nobody had in past decades. British justice would have outrightly banned it, not unlike A Clockwork Orange was banned to the British public — but either way it would only have stoked the fire of controversy and need. You don’t get a sense of the seismic event but it was certainly a milestone on the road to overcoming censorship and our rights to free speech.

One problem with the film, is that the courtroom scene and the interviews with Ginsberg are based on transcripts of the events, which leads to this re-performance, leaving it rather conservative in the portrayal. Franco plays Ginsberg straight. Had he played it drunk as Ginsberg was allegedly, which he is perfectly capable as an ‘actor’, it may have been a far superior depiction.

I relish this film in the same vein as American: The Bill Hicks Story and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson in the sudden rash of biopics of underground alternative icons given the documentary-style treatment. Inventive in its content and engrossing and immersive as it can be, this film may not get to the emotional core or gut of Allen Ginsberg, but it offered me a snapshot of what I’ve missed and can only guide me into further research. Some more depth to this film is attributed to the film with its Executive Producer in Gus Van Sant, director of My Own Private Idaho, which accentuates the credibility of the production as a whole thanks somewhat to Van Sant’s knowledge and expertise.

It is best described in a sense by critic Marjorie Baumgarten: “Howl is a must-see for Beat freaks and poetry geeks but might not be an enriching experience for newcomers to Ginsberg,” which stands true to those of the sort that actively enjoy poetry or prose, without being pedantic or overly snobbish over ‘literature’ — which we know does happen.

This was seminal work of the 1950s that is trying to relate to an audience of today. Therefore it makes sense as an indie film and never as a multi-million dollar production. Franco was an adequate enough ‘name’ at the moment to sell this piece and for all and any of it flaws would sit happily in my growing collection. Seeing this film in an arthouse cinema which it richly deserves adds to the ambiance and experience. Given my relative similar age to Ginsberg at that point, I can attribute my need for further literary eduction, but we can only hope it opens up the eyes of the youth now to another literary world outside of digital technology. Maybe not…

Howl, James Franco

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