Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Movie Review: Howl

Howl ***
Directed by:
Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman.
Written By: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman.
Starring: James Franco (Allen Ginsberg), Jon Hamm (Jake Ehrlich), Mary-Louise Parker (Gail Potter), Jeff Daniels (Professor David Kirk), David Strathairn (Ralph McIntosh), Alessandro Nivola (Luther Nichols), Treat Williams (Mark Schorer), Bob Balaban (Judge Clayton Horn), Aaron Tveit (Peter Orlovsky), Jon Prescott (Neal Cassady), Todd Rotondi (Jack Kerouac), Andrew Rogers (Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

Howl is less of a narrative film than an essay film about the infamous, epic poem Howl by Allan Ginsberg. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman use the obscenity trial in 1955, not of Ginsberg for writing the poem, but on his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing it, as a framing device, but the film is really an interesting reflection of the poem, its meanings and the controversy that surrounded it, Under animated sequences that are alternately beautiful and crude, much like the poem itself, we hear Ginsberg (James Franco) read his epic poem. Cut into this is an interview with Ginsberg, in black and white, where he talks about his life and what led to the poem and scenes from the trial itself where a series of literary experts discuss the value, or lack thereof, of the poem with lawyers and judges. None of the people in the movie can really be described as characters per se - Ginsberg comes closest, but he’s only used to further illuminate the poem itself. This means at times, Howl is dramatically inert - and yet it remains fascinating. I cannot think of another movie that structures itself around a poem in this way.

When you have a film like this, which is less concerned with dramatics than it is with style, obviously the direction becomes more important. I liked how Epstein and Friedman used different techniques at different times in the movie. The animation used during the body of the poem itself is crude and hand drawn, and at times perhaps a bit too literal for a poem, and yet it is also beautiful - and it adds a visual level to Ginsberg’s masterful use of language. The animation also solves the problem that someone reading poetry is not all that cinematic - the animation brings the poem alive in a way that a simple reading could not. And as a fan of animation, who is a little disappointed that even Disney seems to have abandoned the classic hand drawn look, its nice to see that style here - employed in an imaginative, surreal way sure, but hand drawn just the same.

I also quite liked the black and white scenes of Ginsberg being interviewed. Black and white provides a different perspective than color, and used infrequently, but here it works wonderfully well - not just in the interview scenes, but also in the dramatic scenes involving him as well. Franco does an excellent job as Ginsberg as well - he doesn’t much look like the real Ginsberg, but he does have a similar voice, and nails the mannerisms and makes him a fascinating person to watch.

From a visual standpoint, the courtroom scenes - shot in color - are the least interesting. And yet it is still fascinating to hear the experts argue with lawyers about the poem. Mary Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams are the experts, Jon Hamm the defense lawyer, David Straithairn the prosecutor and Bob Balaban the judge. Obviously with those actors, these scenes are well acted - and also rather humorous. Even though it has been just over 50 years since the trial, something like this would be unthinkable today. We have come a long way in our view of censorship during that time.

Howl is an interesting, unique film. Made on a small budget, it obviously attracted the talent in front of the camera it did mainly on the strength of Ginsberg’s poem itself. Yet you do not need to know the poem itself to like the movie - I didn’t know the poem very well at all (those infamous opening lines were familiar, but little else). This is a film that looks at one of the major literary works of 20th Century America, and makes it accessible to everyone. A very good little film.

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