Howl Review

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Docudrama about '50s Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the writing and reception of his seminal poem Howl, the publisher of which was charged and tried for obscenity in 1956.


Quaint as it may seem these days, the first skirmishes in the culture wars were fought over books. In the UK obscenity laws came crashing down over D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, but three years earlier in the US it was Beatnik Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl that found itself in the dock in the personage of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, its publisher. Epstein and Friedman’s curiously disappointing attempt to tell the story of the genesis of the poem and the obscenity trial intertwines footage of James Franco as Ginsberg — an actor/novelist/postmodern jester whom the poet would have loved in all kinds of ways — in a recreation of a long interview, a dramatic staging of the trial in which the prosecutors tried to prove the work had no value, as well as a reading of the poem set to Eric Drooker’s animations.

The strongest strand is Franco’s touching portrayal of the early years in ’50s New York. He channels Ginsberg with deftness and sympathy, presenting an uncertain, virginal gay writer (in a time when such things weren’t fashionable or legal) and depicting his reaching out sexually and artistically to the group of artists who became the Beats: notably Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and vitally Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), their unofficial muse and, at one time, Ginsberg’s lover.

Due to a fractured structure, Franco can’t develop as satisfyingly as promised and as Drooker’s animations make another unwanted appearance you wish the directors had taken the straightforward route. Howl’s fearsome language and wild imagery is clod-hoppingly literally rendered: when Ginsberg speaks of the greatest minds of his generation “chained to subways” we get animated trains. “Boxcars… boxcars… boxcars…” gives us — well, boxcars. (This approach stalls when Franco muses about being “fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists and screaming with joy”, but a shot of a bewildered man wandering through a forest of erect cocks is enough to get a guffaw from even the most po-faced poetry groupie.)

On the upside it’s a pleasure to hear Franco reading Ginsberg’s irrepressibly rude epic — but despite an unexpectedly moving final few moments for a movie about the unruly birth of the Angel-headed hipsters, this is a puzzlingly straight bag.

With a frustrating format and poor animation, it's still worth it for Franco and the chance to engage with a key work of poetry.