Directors: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Writers: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: James Franco, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, Jon Hamm, Aaron Tveit, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Andrew Rogers, Mary-Louise Parker, Heather Klar, Jeff Daniels, Allen Ginsberg (in archival footage)
The issues of censorship and the question of what constitutes obscenity come together in this dramatic telling of the trial for Allan Ginsberg's poem "Howl". The trial itself is a little dry but the imaginative sequences inspired by the poem itself make the time spent viewing worthwhile.
One part of Howl focuses on the obscenity trial for Allan Ginsberg (James Franco) which features several literary experts testifying on the literary merits of the the poem. Another part features Ginsberg in a mockumentary segment answering questions about the poem from an inquiring researcher. The third part has Ginsberg reading the poem at Six Gallery Reading on October 7, 1955, which was the public debut, and also features some glorious animated segments inspired from the poem.
The full text of Howl can be read here.
It is sometimes easy to forget that America in the 1950's was the very epitome of intolerance, as evidenced here when Allen Ginsberg's publishers are forced to justify the legitimacy of the poem in order to avoid criminal charges. You read that right, actual criminal charges. Shig Murao (who was unfortunately not depicted in the film) actually went to jail for selling Howl and Other Poems. First Amendment, what First Amendment?
The problem with the film Howl is that we didn't really need to see a dramatization of the trial itself. The scenes where literary critics debate the worthiness of the Howl are tepid and add little to the movie. The scenes where Ginsberg is being interviewed are a bit more interesting, as these feature James Franco giving a completely natural performance of the late poet and his defence here that Howl represents a sort of pure expression of human expression makes more sense than anything we see in the trial.
However, where the film really takes off are when Franco reads the poem in public and during the animated segments. These sections, set to Franco's narration, are what make the movie worthwhile. We did not need the trial to see the literary merits of the poem Howl, these wonderful sets of animated imagery - which honour Grinsberg's work and bring the poem itself to life - should be enough to convince anyone of the poems merits.
No reason to go around howling like a mad man to find this, but worth taking some effort for those interested in the subject matter.
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