A howling success

The new film about writer Allen Ginsberg and his 1957 obscenity trial is sheer poetry on the screen.

Howl 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Howl 521
(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.
This is 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 them.
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.
Jon Hamm, 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 prosecutor.
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 transcript.
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 writer.
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 the words.
They were simply too literal to add anything.
These 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 history.
A.O. Scott pointed out in his review of the film in the New York Times that Howl has become a staple of college classrooms and that it no longer seems groundbreaking.
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.
And yes, 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.