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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 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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
most of the thought by liberal left leaning "beats" is usually a lot of justification of the poet and a whole lot of forcing perspective and passing it off as some kind of truth. truth is often more relative than a lot of thinkers want us to believe.
i'm not writing to trash anyone here. i just question anything or body that becomes a public legend or icon. no matter what side they're on or no matter how politically correct they believe their message to be. aside from all that, i'm sure that Ginsberg was a larger than life figure and probably deserves his celebrity status.
even though the subject here appears to be Ginsberg, the real subject presented is actually free speech rights and censorship. i believe whole heartedly in reasonable and truthful free speech and i strongly oppose censorship. if you don't like it or can't handle it then don't watch it, read it, or listen to it. simple as that. and if you must expose yourself to different opinions and perspectives, don't freak out. acknowledge the opinions and then be strong minded and form your own. it's not THAT easy to get brainwashed. just show a little back bone for crying out loud.
like the excellent Milos Forman drama about free speech issues 'The People vs. Larry Flint', 'Howl' is a important film about one of the most important topics of discussion. and like Forman's film, 'Howl' is exceptionally good filmmaking with outstanding performances and some really killer cool animation of Ginsgerg's famous poem.
to say that this is a "gay" movie is limiting. this is a film that reaches out to a broad audience with a issue that concerns everyone. this is hardly the "fluff" that the Logo or gay networks usually fill up their programing schedule with. this is a film that should reach everyone on some level or another.
Howl was accused of being "obscene" and threatened to be banned. The film smartly used the Supreme Court definition of "obscenity", and the reading of the poem itself to help me come to an understanding of the charges laid against the poem. James Franco as Ginsberg helped me come to an understanding of what the man behind the poem was all about.
The animated sequences were abstract and detached me from the film but I'm sure to all the artists out there they represented the poem accurately. The revelations into the mind of Ginsberg were done subtly and wonderfully connected with the arguments in the trial. "Howl" is a well done film that should be enjoyed by everyone with an appreciation of poetry and of poetry in our history.
The film isn't a documentary, though it is very similar to one. It centers on several key events so that no dialog needs to be added beyond the historical. A reading of "Howl", the obscenity trial, and two interviews. Each is shown in parts to create a narrative with the suspense being the outcome of the trial. We see the courtroom, the defendant's lawyer, Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) and prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn), Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban) and several of the expert witnesses. Here the debate was whether "Howl" was obscene and thus the book store owner was guilty of selling "obscene" literature. We also hear interviews of Ginsberg as he gives background information on himself and his poem. Eventually, of course, the poem is not ruled as obscene and the bookstore owner is let go.
Several more intimate moments about Ginsberg's life, particularly his relationship with his mom are seen. It's nice to see Franco portray Ginsberg and attempt to imitate his distinct idiolect and mannerisms. Ginsberg always had a unique way of talking, perhaps a product of his New York, Jew upbringing or perhaps because of his experiments with drugs, jazz, and performing arts.
The movie is a more intimate portrait of Ginsberg than I was expecting. I felt that they probably put too much emphasis on his relationship with his mother. A lot of lobotomies were performed at the time, and abuses in mental health care continue to this day. I would hardly put the guilt on Ginsberg, an icon of counterculture. Furthermore, I liked how Ginsberg was portrayed as a struggling artist. His success came, but it took some work.
I also really liked the cartoons that were used to illustrate the poem. I found they complimented the emotional exploration of the film. I'm not sure I would recommend this to anyone who's not a fan of Beat Literature, but I did enjoy it. Of course, I'm a fan of the Beats.
Franco's vocal performance was the first thing to frustrate me; it seems that he has concentrated so hard on imitating Ginsberg's way of speaking that he's forgotten about the passion and conviction necessary to make a poetry reading compelling. More upsetting however was the animation. An extremely modern digital animation, clean and quite simplistic in style, being used to portray a complex, emotional, explicit fifties poem about life as a down and out poet? No. Not okay. The animation was too safe, there was no daring or shock or edge to it - certainly none of the strange figures were to be seen waving genitals and manuscripts. Rather than enhance the meaning of the poem the animated sequences detracted from Ginsberg's beautiful words and imagery. The whole thing just felt very "Hollywood". The entire set-up of the movie was too clean and perfect looking, not at all in keeping with the tone and atmosphere of the poem. The only parts that I didn't find myself skipping through were the scenes of the trial, perhaps because I didn't know a lot about the people portrayed in these scenes and therefore didn't make comparisons between the actors and the reality. These were genuinely interesting to watch, they are well acted (though unlike the rest of the people portrayed in the movie I had no prior impression of the people within the trial scenes to compare with) and provided an interesting insight into the reception of Howl in the literary world.
Overall, I would not recommend this film to anybody who has a prior interest, admiration, or passion for the Beat generation. And if you are coming to the film without any knowledge of Ginsberg and Howl, then I would advise you to go on youtube and find Ginsberg's reading of the poem before watching the film so that you can make up your own mind about it before the dire animation ruins it for you.
Another reviewer who attended a Q&A says that the artist is one who worked with Ginsberg on an illumated Howl. Ginsberg, aside from his involvement in "Pull My Daisy" was not a filmmaker. These folks were either too reverent or lacked creativity. Or both.
Or maybe they just couldn't afford it? There are brilliant out-of-work animators who would work cheap, who've got some serious intelligence, but this stuff brings down the tone of the whole film. Howl is a classic. Not a Hallmark Card.
The film begin with the 1957 obscenity trial held for the 1955 creation of the poem Howl: the Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban) hears the prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) bring testimony from a variety of 'experts' - Gail Potter (Mary-Louise Parker), Professor David Kirk (Jeff Daniels), Luther Nichols (Alessandro Nivola), and Mark Shorer (Treat Williams), and then hears rebuttal from Ginsberg's attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) who is also defending Ginsberg's publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers). And while the trial proceeds the audience is taken back to the year of the poem's creation with Allen Ginsberg portrayed with exceptionally fine acting by James Franco. Ginsberg relates his mother's insanity and the effect of him, his own hospitalization for insanity, and his coming out with lovers Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), and Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit). Each of these actors offer polished portrayals and truly give a sense of the meaning of a counterculture that emerged as a result of Ginsberg's masterpiece poem.
One of the beauties of this film is that it offers the audience all the information about this period and this event and this poet with astute brevity (the film lasts only 84 minutes), making the impact all the more personal. James Franco as Ginsberg, whether reading Howl or responding to an off camera interviewer, is a completely realized performance. Time will prove what an important film this is.
This last strand is sometimes accompanied by pseudo-mystical animation, at others by a modishly monochromatic reconstruction of Ginsberg's original Six Gallery reading. This took place, coincidentally, in San Francisco two years before the trail.
As for the animation it doesn't work. Poetry is never best served on film by being decorated visually (despite Ginsberg's own involvement with the illustrations). We end up watching an urban fantasia of mawkish 'beat' spirituality, sentimentalised poverty, and psychedelic sex.
When Daniels tells the courtroom that poetry is poetry because you can't translate it into prose, we might add that it hardly lends itself to cartoons either. It's a lesson Julie Taymor might have learned before giving us her CGI-fest 'Tempest'.
Casting John Hamm, America's four-square straight guy, in the role of Jake Ehrlich, Felinghetti's defence lawyer, leaves us in no doubt as to which way the verdict will blow. The presence of Bob Balaban as the judge, Marie-Louise Parker in a cameo, and Jeff Daniels as a priggish professor also give this slight film a somewhat over-produced sheen. Was it only due to these big hitters' involvement that the film got made?
Howl the film is not an appraisal of the 'Beat Generation' in all its wonderful squalor and, frankly, un-selfconscious mediocrity. For that, you'd be better off reading James Campbell's wonderful 'This is the Beat Generation'. Campbell is superb on the more marginal figures of that loose group the likes of Herbert Huncke, Burroughs, and the fascinating 'fallen angel of the beat generation', Lucien Carr. I longed for more of the Beats in the film.
The two figures that haunt 'Howl' the poem, however, are its dedicatee, Carl Soloman, who Ginsberg got to know in a mental institution, and another psychiatric patient his mother. It's that relationship, which Ginsberg found too painful to talk about, that I wanted more detail of. In its narrow concentration on Howl the poem, Howl the film tantalisingly narrows its scope.
When Ginsberg tells us "there's no such thing as the Beat Generation. Just a bunch of guys trying to get published" we might remember that it was Allen himself who was the most ambitious of those guys. It was he who personally invited important poets and publishers to the Six Gallery reading, including Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Kenneth Rexroth and Michael McClure. Howl was second to last on the bill, and the not-yet 30 year old poet knew this was his chance.
In response to Ginsberg's reading, McClure wrote: "Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America..." Allen couldn't have planned it better.
What, half a century later, would Ginsberg have made of James Franco playing himself? I can't help thinking he'd sooner have Franco playing with himself. Franco is a latter-day picture of the angel-headed hipster Ginsberg eulogised and adored. Somewhere, up there, the old mystic must be smiling.
What is additionally satisfying in my mind is the evoking of a time and place (mid 1950s America) when a group of writers and quasi-vagabonds lived their lives on their own terms (& not in accordance to what was then considered the status quo) and wrote about it. This is brought out in depictions of Ginsberg's relationships and also in the court room obscenity battle about "Howl."
For it is some kind of paradox when an artistic endeavor is literally put to trial, because the state is offended; recall the two famous 19th century cases in France, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and the Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, both of them charged with indecency, as was also the case for the Howl. The french at the time were for sure living in times when art and state were compounded. And though the next century found us less sure on that matter, all three cases were after one crucial hint: art is bad for the people, and that something at that time was breached in order for such a thing, and here I mean both the artistic act and the trial, to happen.
What was breached, I am in the sad position to report, is not something the film communicates: divided in three modes that are there more for self-gratification than elucidation or for making a case in point. The animation is good, but obviously aims for a first reading. The reading itself, when visualized in its first surroundings, is rather anemic and one-dimensionally polemic but not voiced with enough conviction by James Franco. The parts that work lose balance by the juxtaposition of the three modes. The narrative arc that should be felt is not there.
Let me pass on that ridiculous beard he later puts on. Let me pass also on the big dramatic misfire of having a guy who interviews Franco/Ginsberg but never appears (except for his hands a moment), thus making his existence irrelevant. Why use a dramatic device if you do not properly use it? Does it tell us anything about the writer, the occasion? No. But then again, Franco who is used in artistic stunts here is unfortunately narcissistic. Add this to the prudish and really shameful depictions of the events in his love life, as he narrates it along, and this suffices to put the film's subject back to the closet.
You may think, why do I have to witness Ginsberg making it out with one or several of his lovers? You're right, you don't! But, since the film enters the realm of representation with a kiss and that's all, thus depriving any effect of subversiveness the homosexual life had at Ginsberg's time, as if the advocation of rights was retroactively established, then it definitely has to. Oh, yes! It has to. Otherwise, we all fall in the trap of liberal re-appropriation, that leads to a nice Hollywood picture, making an inoffensive little film like this, neat, clean and ironed, with just a hint of aggressiveness invested in the main character, but bleached, as a hagiography usually is.
So, it is all the more saddening in the end that the only authentic feeling we get is from the late Ginsberg himself, closing the film with a verse whose gesture is at once acknowledging oncoming death and defying his grasp. This is really touching. Yet it comes too late, it is too disjointed with the rest of the film, and in the end Ginsberg himself seems an outcast, also, from it, old, reciting, with nowhere to go, unless he quits it.