DVD Review - Howl
James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg at the age of 29. Ginsberg was an American poet, best known for his book Howl, And Other Poems. This book would eventually be put on trial. Using court records, interviews and material from that book, the filmmakers here create not a video poem nor merely another docudrama. It's something in between.
Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey. He graduated from Columbia University in 1948. He lived in New York City, but the story here picks up in 1955 San Francisco at a poetry reading in a gallery. Ginsberg stands in front of a bunch of people and starts to recite his work.
Directors Rob Epstein (Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) film this scene in black-and-white. They even film a scene of Ginsberg at a typewriter also colorless. This is to contrast the visualizations of Ginsberg's poem that we see inserted as he speaks its words. Those visualizations are animated sequences, cartoon representations.
Yet, they're more than just cartoons. They're beautiful. They're evocative and go beyond just literal depictions. The images range from incarnations of machine-like institutions, pushing uniformity to Van Gogh-like starry night scenes of radiant cool and jazz movement.
Most of the time, Franco is reciting the poetry doing his best imitation of Ginsberg. His readings though have a rhythm of someone whose English is a second language. His emphasis and accents on words or syllables are punctuated in ways that may seem off, but they do have a rhythm. Some people may not be taken with that rhythm, but there are moments when Franco is speaking with his fake beard and beatnik eye glasses that you forget that it is Franco.
Aside from these readings, Epstein and Friedman structure this movie around the obscenity trial that was held against Ginsberg's book. Oscar-nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, And Good Luck) plays the prosecutor. Emmy-nominee Jon Hamm (Mad Men) plays the defense attorney. Oscar-nominee Bob Balaban (Gosford Park) plays the judge. A series of witnesses are brought to the stand to try to discern the meaning and merit of the book line-by-line. One of the witnesses is Professor David Kirk, played by Jeff Daniels (Pleasantville).
Even if you know nothing about Ginsberg, the outcome of the trial is an obvious one. The fun comes in watching the two lawyers debate obscenity versus free speech. It's fun to hear Strathairn, who represents the old conservative viewpoint, say "cock and endless balls," quoting Ginsberg. It's fun and interesting to see the back-and-forth between Hamm and Daniels over the form and validity of Ginsberg's poem. It's especially fun if you're an English major like me, but interesting regardless.
Of everything you hear in that trial, the one thing missing is the testimony from Ginsberg himself. This is fine because interspersed throughout this movie are separate vignettes that peak into Ginsberg's life. Ginsberg narrates these vignettes, but the way he does so is in response to an interviewer. It's as if Ginsberg is doing a documentary and is merely answeringt the questions of an off-camera examiner.
What Ginsberg says and what we learn about him are compelling and heartbreaking. His honesty about his homosexuality is the most so. The boldness, the innovation and the fusion of styles by the filmmakers are standout. If you're interested in more movies about the beatnik writers, check out Naked Lunch (1991).
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong sexual content, language and some drug material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 24 mins.