[Our thanks to Shelagh Rowan-Legg for the following review.]
Alan Ginsberg remains an icon of 20th poetry; though much like Che Guevara, most people know of him as oppose to actually reading his work. His long poem 'Howl' has been called the anthem of Ginsberg's generation. But films about poetry as an art form usually descend into an examination of the poet's love life as oppose to the art itself. Luckily, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film Howl very successful finds a way of exploring the poetic process through four narrative streams. One is a biography of Ginsberg, and the process of the poem's creation; the second is an incredibly animated rendition of sequences of the poem (based on Ginsberg's own graphic work); the third is a recreation of the trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was charged with selling pornographic material when he published and sold the book at his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco; and the fourth a recreation of the first reading of the poem. I have used the word recreation several times now; but that is important. Epstein and Friedman are not attempting a biopic of Ginsberg directly; rather, the steps that lead to his poem, the creative process, and the impossibility of defining the creative process and what is or is not acceptable.
The title is certainly apt. This film (for the most part) howls its way through the material. A film about this poem, which itself explores many styles and motifs, needs a film that works in the same way. The film, like a poem, is a strange amalgam, and the whole is only as strong as its weakest part. And there are no weak parts. The various narrative streams are set side by side as oppose to chronological order. James Franco, in the role on Ginsberg, is the sun around which the planet of the film revolves. These days it can be hard not to notice Franco as oppose to the roles he plays; it could have been a bad choice considering his current fame, but Franco buries himself in this part. In fact, Franco is the perfect choice, not only with his physical resemblance (maybe Ginsberg didn't age all that well, but as a young man he was the epitome of geeky cuteness), but his own writing work, making him more aware of this struggle, which I would argue comes in particular for poetry, the least read literary form (at least in North America.) Unlike so many of his films, you do not see Franco, but Ginsberg, or at least, the artist struggling to find his voice and then, voice found, accepting the responsibility of it.
Poetry, in fact, is likely the most easily transferable literary form to the big screen, as its transient and metaphoric nature allows for greater creative license. By far the best part of the film is the animation, which visualizes the poem in all its jumbled and yet fluid glory. But mixing the animation, the interview, and the court case, Epstein and Friedman are asking the audience to consider the nature of art. I am curious as to whether the dialogue in the court case sequences (which do no feature Franco, but the likes of Jon Hamm, David Strathairn and Mary-Louise Parker, among others) is taken from court transcripts or interpreted; likely the latter, as at times it feel perhaps slightly too congratulatory, but nonetheless there is a moment with Strathairn's prosecutor that makes the point for the defense of the importance of the individual poetic voice.
It might seem a moot point to us in the 21st century, to laugh at those who would attempt to censor a book such as Howl. But as we know, even in the USA, people attempt to ban books and even burn them far too frequently. Even today, the poem 'Howl' is unique not only in its content but its style. Epstein and Friedman have created a beautiful tribute to the poem, the poet, and a reminder of the precarious status and incredible importance of art in society.
Review by Shelagh Rowan-Legg
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