Written and Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Werk Werc Studios)
I went to the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA to watch the movie Howl staring James Franco as the late, great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Warning: I am a huge poetry fan and Ginsberg is one of my idols so this review is going to be fairly one-sided. When I was 15 my uncle Lenny gave me his copy of Howl and Other Poems and told me "I could learn a lot from it”. Lenny being an eccentric artist, musician and intellectual was always trying to broaden my horizons and I was always eager to check out whatever new thing he had to share. I was by no means a sheltered kid growing up. Howl just blew the doors off of a lot of dark and light corners off life I really had no clue about at the time. I was already trying to write my own poetry as an early teen with primitive attempts at song lyrics, sonnets etc, but after reading that book and absorbing other Beat Generation titles I tried to raise it up to another level. I'm not sure I've ever gotten there with my writing, but I keep trying. When I went on vacation last year to California and stopped in San Francisco I made my pilgrimage to the famous City Lights Bookstore which is a major focal point of the film and ground zero for the Beats.
The film which was produced by the team that created The Times of Harvey Milk, covers Ginsberg (Franco) recounting his life interview style from the period when he was writing Howl and flashes forward and backward at different points to his cross country travels and finally his crucial appearance in San Francisco at the Six Gallery readings in 1955 where the Beats really coalesced as a movement. The central point is as much a focus on Ginsberg, his written and emotional journeys, but more importantly the obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (owner of City Lights) of which Howl was the focal point.
The case which was a landmark at the time pitted the honestly and blatantly graphic content of the book versus those who deemed it obscene. The prosecution brought many witnesses and experts to bear witness as to whether or not the book had artistic merits and if the obscenity was necessary to tell the narrative. Other experts argued that out of context anything can be considered obscene or ridiculous or silly. In context the content of the words is paramount to the vitality and purpose of the poem as a story telling device since it reflects Ginsburg’s life experience/journey. The verdict was of course not guilty and this was crucial to American artists and writers at the time since this was the precursor to the more open times of the 1960's. Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of "redeeming social importance" and this paved the way for the protection of writers and other artists who would face future scrutiny. I couldn't help watching the court room scenes and feeling just how relevant this was to today's public battle for the soul of this country. The forces of evil (most of the mainstream media, the moral majority, tea baggers, crazy right wing entities) can never silence art and if they try they will surely rue the day. They just mint more free thinkers and rebels. To quote Otep Shamaya “The tighter they try to make the noose the faster we all break loose!”
The film has received some poor reviews because of its non-linear story telling, but I think it is unfair. Franco gives a stunning performance and is joined by an excellent cast such as Aaron Tveit, John Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams. The film itself is masterfully done in my opinion. On top of the stunning courtroom drama, many of the scenes are constantly inter-cut with amazing animation not unlike Waking Life or PINK FLOYD's The Wall with Franco reading most of the text of the book as a voice-over or at filmed poetry readings. The movies' frenetic pacing style mirror's the meter of Ginsburg’s own words with a seamless editing job between animation and real shot film. Plus the use of black and white shots and old school film shooting style (deep focus, dissolves and cutaways- not the modern MTV jump cut style) to fit the period coupled with hints of color and finally dizzying imagery later on is top notch. If this movie doesn't earn a wider release in spite of its brilliance and Sundance pedigree- please do yourself a favor and find a way to see it.
Here is the poem for those interested: