Release date: February 25th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 84 minutes
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Writers: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, Treat Williams
In 1955 Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem that would go on to define a generation along with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959).
Published in 1956, Howl reflected not only Ginsberg’s own fears, doubts, frustrations and anger towards an uncertain world, but also those around him who were feeling the same thing.
In the film, Ginsberg (James Franco) recalls road trips, love affairs, and his quest for personal liberation which ultimately led to him writing the poem.
Elsewhere, in a San Francisco courtroom, Howl faces an obscenity trial brought against its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers). Prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) argues why Howl and Other Poems should be banned while defence attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) argues for freedom of speech and creative expression before Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban).
McIntosh and Ehrlich interview and cross examine witnesses who all try one way or another to stand by what they believe is decent and acceptable literature for the public to be exposed to.
Howl is written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the duo behind the groundbreaking documentary The Celluloid Closet (1996). Epstein also wrote, produced and directed The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) which documented the political career of San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
~ by Allen Ginsberg
Read it in full here.
Franco gives a beautiful performance in a role which suits him perfectly. The words and rhythm flow effortlessly through him. He quite simply IS Ginsberg in this film and you empathise easily with the young man struggling to come to terms with himself and his sexuality, especially when he talks about his reasons for not wanting his father to read Howl.
Although the film could have followed convention and gone for a straightfoward bio-pic, it would have missed some of the points it makes. Although Kerouac and fellow Beat poet Neal Cassady were responsible for breaking Ginsberg’s heart, that’s not the focus here, but simply how one man’s right to express himself was fought for in a court of law.
It’s a visually stunning and emotional piece of work that’s also thought provoking with its daring mixture of animation (inspired by Illuminated Poems by Allen Ginsberg and Eric Drooker), documentary style interviews, courtroom drama scenes and black and white footage from the recital. It not only looks and feels authentically 1950’s, but the musical score created by Carter Burwell fits seamlessly; its accompaniment to Franco’s recital of Howl’s passages leaves it resounding long after the the film’s finish. Anyone with an interest in poetry, the Beat Generation and gay history should see it.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .