“Howl” captures Ginsberg’s spirit, art

By - Nov 5th, 2010 04:00 am
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James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories

If I might paraphrase the poem in question…I saw the best films of my generation destroyed by bland box office blockbusters, color-corrected, rehashed remakes dragging themselves through overpriced strip mall multiplexes, looking for an angry 3-D fix.

Thankfully, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl is not among that group.

Centered around legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem and the resulting obscenity trial against its publisher (Lawrence Ferlinghetti) upon its 1956 release, the film offers us a glimpse into the workings of a burgeoning poet coming into his own and the means by which our society defines something to be literature.

At first glace Howl may appear to be your run of the mill biopic about the young, gay Ginsburg, but truly, the film’s focus is the work rather than the man himself. It is through the poem that we learn about the poet. Using Ginsburg’s lurid descriptions of a dissolute American landscape, homoerotic encounters and desecrated spirituality, the film pieces together a personal history for the viewer.

The decision to cast James Franco (Milk) for the lead may seem surprising choice given his Hollywood good-looks compared to Ginsberg’s, but Franco pulls off role confidently. Much of the movie depends upon Franco’s capabilities, and there is hardly a trace of fabricated dialogue in the film. Nearly all of the lines in the film are taken either directly from the poem, a 1969 interview by Playboy or court transcripts.

What is remarkable is that in this, Franco’s delivery comes off fresh and uninhibited, as if he were creating the words for the very first time.

The main point of contention among audiences is sure to be the use of digital animation to illustrate the complex and cryptic imagery of the poem. Trying to visually portray writing as abstract as Howl would be a challenge to anyone. However, one can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers would choose such a clean and cartoonish approach to depict Ginsberg’s gritty language. The visuals would be better served if they were as brash and brazen as the poem itself.

Like the controversial work it depicts, Howl will undoubtedly please Ginsberg fans, introduce to the man and the work to a new generation and hopefully drop a few more of those angelic bombs to set us all free.

Howl opens tonight at The Times Cinema. For more information, click here.

Categories: Movies

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