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Watched in June 2010 I've never read Howl or really have had much
interest in Allen Ginsberg, but having seen this delight of a film,
things have changed.
The film takes a look at several key moments in Ginsbergs life. In B&W we see Ginsberg recite his poem Howl: there are also insights into his friendships with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and his relationship with Peter Orlovsky. The reading of the poem is segmented throughout the film and in between these segments we see Ginsberg being interviewed, whilst we never see the interviewer, we do see Ginsberg talk about his life. The other main element is the trial of Howl, which was deemed obscene. All these aspects combine well and it never feels disjointed; they are nicely contrasted and offer great insights into the life of Ginsberg.
Add to this some wonderful animation that plays during much of the recital of Howl; it creates something of a reality to the poem and made it even more stunning and graphic and tragic and beautiful. The trial scenes are fascinating with the constant questioning by the prosecution as to what certain lines or words meant. And how wonderful the judge, who seemed to have made his decision well before the trial was over. Thank goodness for him.
James Franco plays Ginsberg and does so well, although he doesn't have too much to do, he is mostly either being interviewed or reciting; but it is in this he impresses, the passion, the intensity of the piece shines through: the ending of Howl, known as 'Footnote to Howl' is brilliantly spoken and I found it hugely emotional. The film has a slight doco feel to it at times, but it is otherwise an absorbing and wonderfully told account.
I was lucky to watch this movie at the Athens Film Festival last Saturday and, despite its occasional flaws, I loved it. Ginsberg is fairly known to Greece , though most people (myself included) got to know him through his connection with Dylan. In that sense, I wasn't familiar with HOWL or the obscenity trial. For me , the movie's main attraction is the fact that it is not a biopic but a study on the creation of poetry, the power and magic of the words, the creator's struggle for genuineness through a dark path of madness and sexual frustration. The film is an unusual blend of poetry recitation, psychedelic animation, a graphic dramatization of Ginsberg's interview and a straight-forward dramatization of the trial.Some of them work fine and some not. Franco catches the right spirit of a young poet striving to find his way of expression and he is magnetic both in the recitation and in the interview scenes.The trial scenes , though well acted, seemed a little flat to me as compared to the vibrant tone that the poem itself imposes to the film . The animation was a bit uneven , in cases great (the Moloch section was terrific) , in cases indifferent and sometimes, for me, annoying. Apart from those parts that didn't work for me to the extend that I expected , the film is a unique docudrama, a magnificent and courageous ode to the power of words and the freedom of speech and a great depiction of the personal struggle of an artist to be truthful to himself.
Howl was an interesting look into the life of Allen Ginsberg. The movie
was mainly about the trial that questioned whether or not Ginsberg's
poem, "Howl" was too obscene. However, there were brief bits where
James Franco as Ginsberg was being interviewed about his personal life.
I felt that the animations that were displayed during the reading of the poem made the poem more powerful and clear. The contrasts between the beautiful imagery of the poem and the scenes of the tense trial were great. The trial scenes were very powerful, and the actors that played the witnesses (namely Mary Louise-Parker and Jeff Daniels), did a really great job creating believable characters.
I loved the film and Franco did a great job portraying Allen Ginsberg.
I'm surprised that this film worked as well as it did, and that it has been received as well as it has here. I read Howl about 5 years after Ginsberg wrote it, when I was in high school, and, like it or not, it became part of my thinking in the fifty years since then. Still in high school, I could quote passages from the poem at my friends, who would follow up with the next passage, etc. Boooring. But if you had told me that a film would be made about it, with a script constructed of trial transcripts and interviews in the public record, alternating with a recreation of Ginsberg's first public (paying-public; there was ONE previous reading of the full poem) reading of the poem, I wouldn't have expected much. And I would have been wrong. It's well-done and well-acted, and no excuses are made for anything about Ginsberg or his work. I was dismayed at first to see the poem interpreted into animation, but the filmmakers were savvy enough to produce the animation in the style of the times, i.e., 1955, when Disney's Fantasia was still the state of the art, and the animation in Howl could have come out of the Night on Bald Mountain section. In the end, it worked, I think, by keeping the viewer visually in the world of the poem itself, rather than in the biographical material about Ginsberg or the trial and the litigants. So if you want to watch a movie about a poem, and the poet and his friends, but mainly about the poem, this one does a pretty good job.
In 1955 Allan Ginsberg sat in a cafe in Berkeley California and wrote a
poem. He was asked to perform the poem at a reading and at first
refused, but changed his mind after completing a rough draft of Howl.
The poem was published and confiscated when it went through customs
after being printed in London. A trial of the publisher, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti ensued. What should we make of the poem, and of the trial?
The film intertwines the poem with the trial in a most illuminating
fashion. It shows us Ginsberg's milieu using a mix of archival footage
and enactments. Much of the trial, and the judges final comments make
it clear that is indeed the milieu and the language used to express
that milieu which make the poem great.
The film has a heavy weight Hollywood cast and is very well dramatized. The use of graphics helps illuminate the poem and keeps us engaged during the readings, particularly given the difficulty of the imagery.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can honestly say that I watched this entire movie with a very
critical literary and historical eye as well as from the standpoint of
a filmologist. Even before I read all the other reviews and watched it
I was plotting what to write in this review. As a work of art, "Howl"
the movie, is a decent piece of film. It has many phrasings of words in
the script that are a psychoanalyst's wet dream and help to create the
setting of conflict within the self. The poem itself is simultaneously
an observation of current affairs mixed with a critical self-analysis
by the author as well as an outcry both against all the injustice and
wrongs of the world and also a cry of delight for the wonderful
pleasurable things that the world can provide, especially the discovery
of identity which frees the wild side of our nature that is suppressed
by the strict rules placed on a person by the society they are born
into and that they are expected to conform to.
I thought that James Franco was indeed a pretty boy, but that his voice lacked the experience and conviction to match the delivery of Allen Ginsberg's carefully measured and self-tormented voice. The animation was definitely not an amateur work, but I felt that it lacked the precise timing of the imagery to symbolize the words at the right moment to make the words really come to life. The animation that went with the powerful opening lines of the poem did not feel right at all and seemed a betrayal of the author's intent by not correctly portraying the symbolism invoked by the words. I felt that the animators were subdued to conform to the ideas of the producers and the censorship of the MPAA, which is truly ironic considering that the final segment of the trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poignant statement against the censorship of writers and artists and makes a clear statement that the freedom to express ourself is absolutely necessary for a society of free peoples to exist. Many times over freedom of speech has been on trial and it always proves to be the key factor on freedom of thought.
The music and camera work were done with expensive equipment and some attention to detail as most Hollywood films are which made the overall feel of the entire experience relatively pleasing. I feel I must add this segment to the review to explain why the success of this movie leaves such a sour taste in my mouth: A few years ago I stumbled upon a brilliant mind-blowing documentary called "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg" and Jerry Aronson, who made that film, followed Ginsberg around for 25 years with a camera after his life was saved because a cop was about to beat his skull in at one of the free speech riots of the 1960s when everyone turned to hear Ginsberg "ohm"-ing into the police loudspeaker and then Jerry says that when he marketed the film to producers in the U.S. they all said that nobody wanted to make a movie about a poet and he had to seek money in Europe to make that film. According to IMDb, that movie was not sent to international film festivals, was only shown for one weekend at one U.S. theatre, and overall grossed less than $3000. A few years later this movie Howl is made and gets sent to all the big international film festivals and grosses over $300,000. This is a real tragedy both cinematically and intellectually and a major disaster for the literary filmologist world. I'm sure Aronson's checkbook is feeling pretty disappointed, although he got a small clip sold to this movie. I sincerely appreciate this film getting out there to make a few more people aware of how influential this poem and poet was to the "beat"/"hippie"/"counter-culture" "movement" in the U.S. during the 1960s, although the screenwriters tied it simply to a censorship trial and nothing more than a few people in a small room appreciating it when it first was read in public by the author. If you truly want some insight into Allen Ginsberg's life, get your local video store to order a copy (or netflix has it, if that option is available to you) of "The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. The real truth of history is that Timothy Leary turned Allen Ginsberg onto psilocybin mushrooms, and Allen Ginsberg turned Bob Dylan and the Beatles onto LSD.
This is a brilliant film. I have not seen a another film that
successfully shows how someone creates a work of art, especially a
literary work. This film does it brilliantly, largely by quotations
from the poem read very effectively by James Franco, who plays
Ginsberg. Acted out interviews illuminate many things and the trial
itself is extremely involving to watch. Even the animated portions we
see while we hear parts of the poem work well. It's a remarkable film
about artistic creation and how the artist must be allowed to use his
own words and to use language that expresses his meaning fully, not
language that is inoffensive to some imaginary reader.
Franco, John Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels are all at their best, and seem truly committed to the project.
You don't even have to be a fan of Ginsberg, or know much about who he was to enjoy this. I was really impressed, one of the best films of this year, but it will likely be ignored by many.
Wonderfully evocative faux-documentary that showcases the poem. The
animation sequences stick close to the literal denotation of the
textual images. Some have found that approach unsympathetic, but I
disagree. Part of what I love about the poem is its twisting of
banality into surrealist mysticism (Plotinus in Oklahoma, Blake in the
heavens over New Jersey and demon Moloch on Madison Avenue). The
contrast between the intensely colored fantasy animation and the
back-and-forth to black-and-white convey that contrast nicely. Others
would like to see something else; let them make something else.
David Strathairn as the prosecutor is wonderful. The scene when he inadvertently (I assume) falls into Ginsberg-ian imagery ("When I open my mouth, fists come out") is worth the whole price of admission.
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.
Poetry can seriously damage your health. That's the main thing I've
learned from recent biopics in which Johnny Depp's pox-ridden John
Wilmot (The Libertine), Ben Whishaw's consumptive Keats (Bright Star)
and Gwyneth Paltrow's depressive Sylvia Plath (Sylvia) have cornered
the market in self-destructive behaviour.
I approached Howl, a movie about Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, it stars James Franco as Ginsberg and Mad Men's Jon Hamm as his lawyer, Jake Ehrlich. I'd watch these two ridiculously handsome actors in just about anything, but I really didn't want to sit through another Ode to Angst.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman -- The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet are renowned for their documentary work and this film was originally conceived along those lines. Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl" was first published in 1955, but its explicit references to drugs and homosexuality (amongst other things) led to the prosecution of his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1957. The intention was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of those events.
But instead of a straight documentary, the film-makers have opted to show us three sides of "Howl". There's the poem itself, with Franco trying to channel the spirit of Ginsberg as he addresses a rapt audience, in the b/w sequences from 1955. By contrast, the trial scenes are shot in colour and feature many voices with differing opinions about the merit of Ginsberg's work. Finally, the poet's own thoughts are recorded by an unseen interviewer. At the centre of all this, "Howl" is also given visual form, with a series of animations created by artist Eric Drooker.
For me, the courtroom scenes are the most enjoyable and thought-provoking element of the film. A succession of expert witnesses some pompous, some just prejudiced try to get to grips with issues of literary merit and the nature of obscenity. David Strathairn is admirably straight-faced in the role of prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh, as he tiptoes through a minefield of sexual imagery and baffling phrases like "angel-headed hipsters". Hamm's tight-lipped defence lawyer brings a sense of intellectual superiority to the proceedings he's a crusading Don Draper with the added bonus of a moral compass.
Ginsberg himself wasn't on trial here and wasn't present at the proceedings, but the debate about whether the law is an effective tool for censoring and constraining artists remains highly topical. As one of the more thoughtful witnesses (played by Treat Williams) explains, "You can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it is poetry." The poet's own perspective on his life and work is captured in conversation with an off-camera reporter. A bearded, chain-smoking Ginsberg talks openly about his homosexuality, his mother's psychiatric problems, and fellow writer Carl Solomon, to whom "Howl" was dedicated. This strand of the film was inspired by a never-published interview that Ginsberg gave to Time magazine, but the film's dialogue is culled from a variety of sources.
Trying to explain the process of translating feelings into verse is a hard thing to pull off on film. Perhaps that's why most film-makers prefer to concentrate on the broken marriages and substance abuse that go hand in hand with tortured literary geniuses. Epstein and Friedman, who also wrote the screenplay, have done a good job trying to condense biographical detail and literary theory into what is basically a monologue without being pretentious or boring. Brief flashbacks of Ginsberg pounding away at his typewriter, with his friend Neal Cassady, and in bed with long-term partner Peter Orlovsky, help to round out a portrait of the artist.
The final piece in the jigsaw the poem is the most problematic aspect of the film. How much of the work does the audience need to hear, and how do you hold their attention through some long and difficult passages? I quickly became bored of Franco's declamatory style, as he reads to a gathering of smug-looking hipsters at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.
When the recitation continues over Eric Drooker's animation, the effect is even worse. It's a matter of taste whether you thrill to the repeated imagery of fire, the minotaur-like Moloch and weirdly elongated bodies flying across the night sky. I prefer not to have someone else's interpretation of the verse foisted on me. Archive footage from the period would have been another option to fill the gap, but overall I think the poetry should have been used more sparingly.
Howl is bold, stylish attempt to capture a period in the mid-20th century when writing poetry could be an act of political rebellion a shot across the bows of dull, conformist, heterosexual America. By casting the handsome and charismatic James Franco as Ginsberg, the directors could have turned this into yet another movie about the cult of personality. Instead they've largely succeeded in keeping the focus on the verse and on the act of writing. As the man said, "There's no Beat Generation. Just a bunch of guys trying to get published."
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