(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sometimes – and it’s all too rare – a movie comes along that is so brilliant in
so many ways that it’s hard to describe. Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and
Jeffrey Freidman, is one of those rare and wonderful movies. The film focuses on
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” which became a kind of anthem of the Beat
Generation, and the 1957 obscenity trial against its publisher.
certainly an unusual and ambitious subject for a movie today, but it’s a gamble
that paid off. It will fascinate, move and delight anyone who cares about poetry
or is interested in intellectual history. So often, in movies about art and
artists, you leave with a slight annoyance, feeling that the artists are
tiresome creatures who wreak havoc, and you’re glad you don’t know
Their art doesn’t come alive on the screen. But here, you may wish
you knew Ginsberg, and you may well get yourself a copy of “Howl” and read it as
soon as you can.
This movie, which is more a biography of the poem than
of the poet, tells its story in three parallel tracks. One is the obscenity
trial, in which the publisher of “Howl,” City Lights Books, was tried for
publishing a work prosecutors claimed was obscene. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (played
by Andrew Rogers), the Beat poet who ran City Lights, was called upon to defend
the work, since Ginsberg wisely tried to stay out of the fray.
who is best known as Don Draper on the TV series Mad Men, plays Ferlinghetti’s
smooth defense lawyer, while David Strathairn is the often laughable
Although you may think the film is setting him up as too easy
a target, the dialogue in the courtroom scenes was all drawn from the trial
Mary-Louise Parker is on hand as a clueless literary lady who
wants the poem banned.
It’s amazing to watch the spectacle of the trial
for two reasons. One, to remind ourselves how much the world has changed in
little over 50 years (then, it was revolutionary to mention gay sex in a poem,
while today gay marriage is legal in many parts of the US). And two, to watch
the spectacle of people on both sides of the political and cultural spectrum
getting passionately worked up over a poem. It’s difficult to imagine anything
comparable happening today.
Outside of the trial, Howl
tells its story by
featuring Ginsberg, played in a masterful performance by the eccentric and very
gifted young actor James Franco, talking about the poem and what it means to
him. This involves him reminiscing about his life, how he came to write this
poem, how he broke free from the traumas of his childhood and became a
He also discusses his homosexuality and his doomed crushes on
straight or bisexual Beat icons Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady
(Jon Prescott), memories that are dramatized in flashbacks. Much of this
dialogue is drawn from interviews Ginsberg gave during the trial, and his words
are as touching as they are mesmerizing.
The third part of the film has
Ginsberg reading the poem as animated images illustrating it play on screen.
Although the words carry power, I didn’t think the images matched the quality of
They were simply too literal to add anything.
three sections are woven together throughout with a sure touch, and somehow
their juxtaposition creates a narrative thrust.
It’s a story about a
lonely young guy who doesn’t fit in finding himself in life and through art, and
it’s a pleasure to watch. Any aspiring writer should see this movie, especially
young ones, since it will give them a perspective on literary
A.O. Scott pointed out in his review of the film in the New York
has become a staple of college classrooms and that it no longer
While that is undeniably true, I think the
achievement of directors Epstein and Friedman is to show the passion and
self-revelation in the work. This is what made it a a sensation.
I did get hold of the poem and read it as soon as I could after seeing the film,
and there is really no higher praise than that.