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|Index||51 reviews in total|
If you're looking for a standard plot line or narrative, or a biopic of
Allen Ginsberg, HOWL is definitely not for you. Written and directed by
Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman,
HOWL is a thought-provoking narrative film that explores the impact of
Allen Ginsberg's legendary work of poetry on American culture. Instead
of a standard beginning-middle-end storyline, Epstein and Friedman
embrace the idiosyncratic rhythm and imagery of Ginsberg's poem, and
instead weave together a hypnotic film out of several different
The music threaded throughout the film is gorgeous free form jazz, and it's entirely appropriate, as the film feels like an improvisational jazz piece. Instead of individual instruments, we get those disparate storytelling threads. They include a masterful recitation of Ginsberg's poem by actor James Franco; a mesmerizing visualization of Ginsberg's words through animation inspired by Ginsberg's own drawings; Franco's recreation of an actual audio interview from Ginsberg that clues us into Ginsberg's back story and literary motivations; and compelling drama from the obscenity trial that publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti faced when he released HOWL in America. Some might be thrown off by the veering ways in which all of these threads weave in and out of each other, but I found it fascinating and riveting. A friend I saw the film with said I was so focused on the movie, she thought I was reading it right off the screen. I appreciate Epstein and Friedman for giving me such a compelling movie-going experience.
Let me say queerly away that I do not think Ginsberg a great poet: his
poetry is a bit too steeped in the cultural circumstance he usually
rebels against, working rather as an accessory to its milieu; his
friend Frank O'Hara was rather more subversive and is still
avant-guard, but then again his was the true poetic gift. Though as
exactly that kind of register, Ginsberg gives, along with the
occasional poetic phrase, a convoluted sense of impact between
(talented) exception and civilian rigor (mortis).
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.
I first read On The Road about four years ago and have since been a
passionate devourer of anything to do with the Beat generation. I was
genuinely excited by the prospect of a film telling the story of Howl's
trial, but ended up being thoroughly disappointed.
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.
In admiration of James Franco and his portraying a literary person is
why I wanted to see this film. Since I'd never read the poem "Howl" by
Allen Ginsberg (& I knew of Ginsberg in his later years as he was
fairly renown as almost an elder poet statesman), I actually dug up a
copy of "Howl" and read it before I viewed the movie. It turns out that
it wasn't necessary to have read "Howl" -- the film sufficiently
presents the poem and its complete text so that the viewer gets a good
understanding just from the movie itself (at least I thought so...).
This occurs in not only Franco's public reading of "Howl," it is
brought out in the animation aspect of the film -- for me the animation
was unexpected yet not intrusive. What is the film's major strength is
James Franco's portrayal of Ginsberg. Franco's actual physical
resemblance to the younger Ginsberg adds to his portrayal and his
public reading of "Howl" is also quite good.
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."
Franco was magnificent. Everybody was good. I was in my teens when all
that happened, and the production was wonderfully REAL. I loved hearing
the poem read and pieces of it being re-read, etc. BUT major complaint.
The animation. The outsourced animation could have been moving or
touching or enlightening or anything, but it looked like hallmark
cards! CHEEEEESY. Terminally unimaginative. Haven't these filmmakers
ever seen any REAL animation? By artists? Take a look at Ryan by Chris
Landreth. Take a look at anything done by Ryan himself. Look at
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
HOWL, The Poem in focus, Viewed at Berlin, 2010
"Howl", in competition at Berlin 2010, straight from Sundance where it was the festival opener, is a semi-documentary focusing on a page out of the scandal ridden life of gay Poet Laureate of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg, when he was put on trial in 1957 for obscenity in connection with the publication of his magnum opus "Howl".
(I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness ...). The poet is portrayed by actor James Franco who appeared opposite Sean Penn in last year's Oscarized gay mayor movie "Milk", and is directed in tandem by documentarians Rob Epstein (The times of Harvey Milk, 1984 ) and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, 1995) Using Gínsberg's famous verse masterpiece as the focal point of the story, "Howl" looks at different aspects of this landmark poem of the Beat era. The poem itself is depicted through animation and Ginsberg is shown reading it to an audience for the first time, then being interviewed by a faceless reporter off camera. Tailor made for Beatnik Era buffs (such as myself, for instance).
"Howl" was interesting historically, but generally rather disappointing. Maybe I was expecting too much but among other things, the main actor, James Franco, playing Ginsberg, just wasn't Jewish enough, abrasive enough, or Gay enough! Berlin, Feb,12, Day Number 2 February 12, 2010 The early morning press conference for HOWL screened last night was better than the film itself. Both directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein were on hand to field probing questions from a sparse but more sophisticated press assemblage than usual. One German lady claimed that the animation used to illustrate the Allen Ginsberg poem was too glitzy and modern to suit the fifties time frame of the film. The general feeling, however, was that the film was worthy and stimulating, if not geared to the mass audience.
Other than that it can be said that this year's Berlinale, never a festival to start off slow, has already shot off much of its heaviest load and biggest guns in the opening three days. Among high profile premiers already screened have been the Alan Ginsberg biopic and homage to his magnum opus "HOWL", entitled --you guesstit -- "Howl" -- good reception here, but will probably be a hard sell at the cineplexes because of the experimental animation mixage and the intellectualized treatment of the subject matter. BOTTOM LINE: For Ginsberg buffs and Beat Generation historians only.
(61%) A decent stab at bringing poetry to the sliver screen in this part animated snippet of Allen Ginsberg's life during a public obscenity trail around the release of his most noteworthy work. The runtime is pretty brief as it allows the poetry to do a fair amount of the talking with Ginsberg's life playing almost second fiddle between the court hearings. James Franco does a fair job in a role that mostly requires him to recite poems to quite mesmerising looking music video style short films that I thought worked perfectly well. The fact that a series of poems needed to be brought to a court of law to decide whether or not to ban them from public circulation in a so-called free country to me is as utterly laughable as it is annoyingly true. And marks the fact that rich and powerful prudes even today still seem to have a say on things that don't concern their tiny, weak, and largely closed minds.
My rating: 6.5/10
My opinion on the film:
I can totally understand that someone deems this film as meandering and unfocused, and I can because it's likely true. However, what impressed me about it is that in mood and structure it was quite different from any other biopic I've ever seen, and while the final product ran the risk of being pretentious, in my opinion it wasn't because behind and in front of the camera I sensed an honest and real sense of commitment and respect for Allen Ginsberg, the man they were depicting.
The animated segments that were meant to offer a visual representation of Ginsberg's most famous work, his poem "Howl", were very bland and dull and if it weren't because of them, I think the film would have been considerably better. The scenes featuring Ginsberg (remarkably played by James Franco) telling his life story and the ones which offered a dramatization of the obscenity trial Ginsberg's publisher was subject to, were very well done and they served as a great compensation for the boring animated bits.
Howl was not a great film but it was worth watching. I think it offered a fair portrayal of the 1950s and of the impact Ginsberg had on the society of the time with his groundbreaking piece of work. It's worth mentioning that the acting was great by the whole cast.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Howl, a movie entirely based on a poem written by Allan Ginsberg, one of the pioneers of the Beat Generation, with the same title, is one of the best examples that highlights freedom of expression, aggression due to social taboos, a writer's creative freedom and the problems associated with it and the consequences that a writer or a creator of a creative work has to face if he/she took refuge in the fact that creative freedom and freedom of expression are to be taken for granted. This has always been the major cause for concern for so-called unconventional writers. It is quite clear that mainstream writing has been reduced to a medium wherein the writer is merely forced to cater to the needs of the "reader" with conservative outlooks, as it has been for ages, instead of how it should actually be, i.e. a writer speaking his heart out. Of course, we have come across many such incidents in the past, and have also witnessed the writer's names not only fade into the depths of oblivion but also getting erased from all records and pages in the history books. Their identities and very existences have been questioned and debated for doing what they believed in and doing what they loved doing. In spite of the fact that certain works had literary quality, such works were the eyesores for certain conservative readers, yet the cynosure of all eyes for few others. Allan Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was a direct reflection of his upbringing in a society strapped with moral, social, cultural and religious taboos. Writing was a merely a medium to vent his frustration and anger towards a society that treats its own people as aliens or outsiders. His works, especially Howl looks at the very same aspect of life with a magnifying glass. His homosexual tendencies, his world view of life's happenings and other views expressed in his poems put the state of mind of the writer under the scanner, as it was evident from the clear disregard of the writer towards the needs of the readers and placing his own manifestations of thoughts ahead of all else, which is very important for any writer to represent any true work with a degree of authenticity. Talking about the movie in particular, the movie has been handled with utmost care. The director of the movie has taken good measures to ensure that the legacy of Allan Ginsberg lives on, whilst providing cues to other such similar or upcoming unconventional writers to come out of their shells. What makes it more special is the fact that conservatism was at its peak in the 1950s and that was exactly when Allan Ginsberg made his works public. This served as an inspiration to millions of non-conservationists who were trying really hard to express themselves and emerge out of their cocoons to stand against people who opposed radical changes. The Hippie culture, censorship in movies, inter-racial romance and many other taboos in the 1950s took the driving seat for most part of the 1960s and has since stayed strongly with us. The taboos of the 50s or until the 60s, finally gained a moral victory over the so-called conservationists, thereby opening up a plethora of new ideas to think, debate, analyze and ponder about. This sudden change also influenced the way people started thinking, the various cultures and a bevy of other organized structures. Howl and other poems was a major and prominent part of the victors' side. Freedom of expression, creative freedom, emerging out of one's "moral" shell and various other aspects that were previously considered to be taboo derived new-found meanings which facilitated more and more creative works of literature and art to be created and made public, which surprisingly found many takers from the opposite camp as well... This evoked a sense of awakening in the minds of the people to open up to a playground of unheard ideas and thoughts. The brainchild of imagination was the surreal movement, which started gathering momentum in the 1970s. Interconnected threads Allan Ginsberg's life experiences and the way it is received by the readers and the society as a whole, and how a candid interpretation of a writer is blown out of proportion and dramatized forms the core of the movie. It also has its share of animated sequences with a hint of surreal treatment, probably to suggest the fact that imagination is like an open field where anyone can achieve anything and infinite dreams can be realized. The crux of Allan Ginsberg's Howl and other poems has been replicated with intricate detailing and juxtapositions of contrasting thoughts of the readers who testify for and against the writer at the obscenity trial. On a biopic-style ending point of view, Allan Ginsberg's life has been documented in facts on screen. There is an almost surreal treatment to the film, with the animated sequences in perfect amalgamation with certain key elements in Allan Ginsberg's life, or to be precise, one particular incident in his life of major significance, Howl and its almost ridiculous and astounding obscenity trial. The film and the book, in particular, was certainly an eyeopener to many a people in terms of its literary treatment and gave heart- felt writing a whole new meaning and dimension.
Alan Ginsberg is an Iconic Figure of the Beat Generation. His Worth as
a Poet is, Like All Poets and Art for that Matter, a Matter of Taste.
Ginsberg's Howl Might be too Self Indulgent to be Great Poetry but is a
Seminal Work that Broke Boundaries, and was Famously Attacked for being
The Obscenity Trial that was the Result of the Book being Sold Openly on Bookstore Shelves is Witnessed here with Verbatim Trial Transcripts Dramatized by Actors. The Beats are Secondary to Ginsberg's Persona and this One Particular Poem. That Coupled with HIs Homosexuality is the Focus.
James Franco seems to be Acting here and the Beard is Laughable at Times. But it is an Honest Effort and doesn't Distract too much from the Overall Impact and Power of the Movie. It is a Unique Format Interspersing Surreal Animation to Illustrate some of the Poems more Lured Laments and it Works Just Fine and has a Distorted and Catchy Style.
Overall, the Film is a Fine Gloss of the Beats and a Somewhat Intriguing Probe into One of its Accidental Founders. Ginsberg is Like an Angry Dove and His Stream of Consciousness Poetry is Interesting and its Clunky Style is Either Genius or Nothing More than an Angst Ridden Excuse for Him to Lay Waste to a Hypocritical World that did not Accept His Lifestyle or His Family's Mental Illness with Much Compassion.
Overall the Film and Ginsberg's Work is a Matter of Taste or it could be said "One Man's Meat is Another Man's Poison".
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