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It's San Francisco in 1957, and an American masterpiece is put on trial. Howl, the film, recounts this dark moment using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg to find his true voice as an artist, society's reaction (the obscenity trial), and animation that echoes the poem's surreal style. All three coalesce in hybrid that dramatizes the birth of a counterculture. Written by
Sundance Film Festival
"Howl" for Carl Salomon. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...
[continues reading but unheard, credits roll]
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Howl might be a one-of-a-kind film experience if not for Chicago 10, another film that blended documentary, dramatization and animation together into a blender of personal history. But what sets this film apart from that and all others is that poetry becomes interwoven into a courtroom trial procedural - all, apparently, taken from the actual court transcripts of what the prosecution/defense asked of the people on the stand - so that it becomes about free speech. At the same time it's a quasi-biopic on Allen Ginsberg, who was a real free spirit, but also a shy Jewish kid from New York city who lost his mother as a child and worried about writing poems that might irk the ire of his father (he even considered not publishing Howl for that reason).
It's a beautifully surreal little treat of a film that treats its subject seriously while also giving life to the epic poem that stays timeless, as with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (which also gets name- dropped here). The filmmakers bring together the poetic readings - done by James Franco, one of his real 'embodiment' performances like Saul in Pineapple Express that is basically stunning - from in front of a live audience (where one sees how Ginsberg at first has an audience patient and waiting and then is full of life and looking forward to every next thing he says) and in animation. The poem becomes alive through the low-budget drawings, and depending on the stanza it can be at least acceptable and at most mind-blowing. You almost want the poem to go longer to sink in deeper to those Ginsberg stanzas that flow out with what appears to be stream of consciousness, but really has a structure to it.
Acting is fantastic - David Straithairn, Jon Hamm and in a one-scene keeper Jeff Daniels - Franco keeps things moving so well with his performance, and the poem is given it's best context in personal and social history. All of a sudden, thanks to a film like this, the material becomes alive again, like a student picking it up and sinking into it for the first time.
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