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Review: Howl

PUBLISHED: 17:03 04 March 2011

Howl

Howl

Archant

'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness'. Whatever else you say about Allen Ginsberg's epic 1955 poem, you can't argue with that first line.

Howl the movie tackles the creation of the poem and the 1957 obscenity trial in which a San Francisco publisher faced a prison sentence for publishing it.

The film is divided in three concurrent sections. one is a recreation of the obscenity trial, another is Ginsberg (James Franco) being interviewed at around the same time and, finally, there is a performance of the actual poem (if not in entirety then in great depth).

The poem section is split between recreating its first public performance in a small bar in San Francisco and animated scenes which are taken from a graphic novel interpretation of his poetry, a collaboration between Ginsberg and Eric Drooker.

It’s this last section which makes Howl a bit special.

Unlike most films about art and artists, this one is actually about the art as much as the artist. You may not come out of the film convinced that Howl is a great poem, but you will be able to make an informed decision and you will have an insight into its references and its significance.

In the way that it merges an interpretation of the piece and its background, it has some parallels with David Cronenberg’s version of another Beat landmark, Naked Lunch.

Director Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s background is in documentaries and almost all of the script comes directly from court and interview transcripts.

The film bears many hallmarks of a Good Deed film, the kind of earnest righteous piece where big names can turn up briefly and be seen to have done their bit.

The live action scenes took up just 14 days shooting. Apart from Franco, all the name actors appear in the courtroom scenes.

Jon Hamm looks as if he’s just walked straight off the Mad Men set to play the defence lawyer. The courtroom stuff is easily the least interesting part but it serves a purpose in the overall design by providing a context in which to judge just how extreme Howl’s impact was.

What really makes it howl though is James Franco. He first came to notice in the Spider-man films, looking for all the world like a vacuous pretty boy with nothing more to offer than a weak approximation of James Dean.

Ever since, I’ve set my face against any notion that his was an emerging talent but he’s outstanding here.

Howl (15)

Directors: Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker.

Length: 90 mins

****

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