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It's about the poem
birck22 July 2011
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.
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Mr. Ginsberg I love thee...
ihrtfilms8 June 2010
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.
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Poetry as a movie
marika_alexandrou20 September 2010
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.
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razmatazern21 June 2010
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.
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tears of the wind
lucius_4208 November 2010
Warning: 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.
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a howl at an unfeeling uninterested universe
oaksong15 June 2010
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.
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An Essential Film of Great Ideas
mackjay226 December 2010
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.
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about poetry and the so-called laws of art
Quinoa198431 October 2011
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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It's A Free Speech Thing
johnstonjames3 August 2011
Warning: Spoilers
i've never read Ginsberg's 'Howl'. heard a lot about it and am definitely curious, but i never get around to that one. i also think maybe i'm a little put off by the gay "beat" poets of the fifties and sixties. too much waxing that often feels more about the process of thinking than anything else. if life is truly existential, then i don't relate and i don't need your opinion.

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.
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The Beat goes on
susannah-straughan-112 October 2010
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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Angel Headed Hipsters
grantfranks12 December 2010
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.
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Howling At The Sky
Chrysanthepop9 August 2011
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's 'Howl' is an interesting and humorous depiction of the 1957 trial regarding Allen Ginsberg's controversial poem 'Howl'. In between the trial we are given glimpses of Ginsberg's life (in black and white) and an interview with him. The black and white sequences are beautifully shot. The style reminds one of French movies from the 50s. The recital of the poems takes some getting used to but once it is coupled with the animated sequence there's no turning back. It brings the poetry to life. Those are the highlights of the film. Moreover the animation is beautifully done. The pacing is uneven as its slow at times (especially in the beginning). I would have liked to have seen more glimpses of Ginsberg's life. The actors do a fairly decent job. James Franco does a good enough job and he is well supported by David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola and Mary-Louise Parker. Overall, 'Howl' is an intriguing account and does quite well in introducing Ginsberg's poems to those who are not familiar with his works. The animation gives it a unique touch.
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Poetry brought to life
napierslogs19 January 2011
Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl is brought to life with a mix of adult animation, court-room drama and the beliefs of a young hero of sorts. Ginsberg represented the new generation of the young, confused nonconformists and he wrote poetry that ignited the wrath of the older generation that rejected their freethinking ways. The great thing about "Howl" is that I didn't know any of that before the film, it was able to educate me about a remarkable young man and literary voice.

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.
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Howl is Fantastic
edescot723 October 2010
Was only a kid when all this happened but ten years later saw and heard Ginsberg read Howl at the Unitarian Church on Arlington Street in Boston. I remember how well the reading was received even ten years after publication. The movie will remind us all what a wonderful work Howl was and continues to be. Poetry was never the same after Howl. The mixed methods presented in this movie might be a water shed for film. Let's face it the writers and director had to present a poem as a movie. It is not just about the trial, the movie is also the actual poem. (Hope that is not a spoiler.) Just the presentation is a concept that breaks new ground in film making.
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All talk, no howling
pablocarlos8 May 2011
Howl is a great poem; Howl is a weak movie. If you want to be talked at for 90 minutes, then maybe you'll find it edifying, but to be honest, I found that this film took some really interesting people, a really interesting moment and a really important poem and turned them into words, words, words. I would have liked the portions in which Ginsberg reads the poem at the Six Gallery because I think James Franco does a pretty good job of getting Ginsberg's voice and cadences down as well as his gestures and body language. Never been much of a fan of Franco, but he does a good job here of paying homage to Ginsberg. Still, I can't get past his pretty boy looks which don't work even for the young Ginsberg. Similarly, the crowd of beats at the poetry reading look like they just popped out of a frat party. They don't look "beat." The courtroom scenes were poor; I am a great admirer of David Strathairn, but he has very little to work with here while Jon Hamm does a fine imitation of a block of wood. Jeff Daniels is laughable as a caricature of academia. The interview sequences include a lot of good material, but there's too much of it to be absorbed and the whole thing comes across as very static. The animations provided a creative way to incorporate the poem, but they didn't really dazzle. Ginsberg was a very interesting man who deserves much better.
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Beat Generation According to Hollywood.
jemmakatrina31 March 2011
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.
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Good for Beat Fans
pvtsew17 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The film starts with the interesting claim that every word spoken was actually spoken.

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.
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jboothmillard7 February 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I had heard that Daniel Radcliffe was going to play young gay poet Allen Ginsberg in his next film Kill Your Darlings, and when I found out that this film was about him, and his most celebrated but also controversial poem, I was intrigued to see what it would be like. Basically, set in 1957, San Francisco, the film examines the poem "Howl" being the focus of an obscenity trial, for it's frequent use of graphic language and references to homosexual, we also see the poem writer Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) interviewed, he was not afraid to admit his homosexuality, and his thoughts behind it, and throughout he reads extracts of the poem with animation illustrating the words. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) as the publisher of the poem was the man on trial more than Ginsberg himself, prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) wants to justification as to why the poem was aloud to be published, and gets opinions literary experts, including literary critic/book editor Luther Nichols (Alessandro Nivola) and Professor David Kirk (Jeff Daniels), to defend it's credibility. In society "Howl" has become a literary revolution, part of the San Francisco Renaissance and a cultural phenomenon, and throughout the film passages from the poem accompanied by surreal animation of all sorts, computer animated and hand drawn to interpret, this only adds to the non-linear film construction, mixing 1940's and 1950's historical fact and a variety of other cinematic techniques. Of course young Ginsberg is seen throughout the film as well, mostly in black and white during his early interviews about his poetry and other literary work, doing public readings, including from "Howl", and his personal experiences of homosexuality and some struggles, that gave him the confidence to express himself, Ginsberg was not afraid to write whatever he wanted and created a literary masterpiece. Also starring Jon Hamm as Jake Ehrlich, Bob Balaban as Judge Clayton Horn, Mary-Louise Parker as Gail Potter, Treat Williams as Mark Schorer, Todd Rotondi as Jack Kerouac and Jon Prescott as Neal Cassady. I can see what the critics mean that the often laughable animation by street artist Eric Drooker maybe overshadows the sequences of Ginsberg and the courtroom scenes, but I don't think this is the case, it is certainly experimental the editing, but you definitely appreciate the subtle but interesting performance by Franco as young Ginsberg, I don't think this is the type of film I would see more than once, but it was an interesting drama based on a true story. Worth watching, at least once!
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Powerful Evocation of a Particular Moment in American Popular Cultural History
l_rawjalaurence7 February 2014
Inspired by the Allan Ginsberg poem of the same name, HOWL shows the eponymous hero (James Franco) reading the work out lout to a group of fellow-poets in San Francisco. The work obviously inspired extreme passions: the audience listen in rapt attention to a work that depicts the poet's feelings through an earthy yet compelling idiom. In an attempt to show how the poem might work, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman introduce a series of animated sequences; none of them try to 'explain' the work, but rather show how Ginsberg's language works associatively, inspiring moods rather than following any logical sequence. When the work was first published in the mid-Fifities, it was the subject of a famous obscenity trial: Epstein and Friedman restage that trial, showing how the poem was criticized for its apparent earthiness of language, and then cleared on the grounds that Ginsberg was only following the principle of free speech. HOWL is an enthralling piece, encouraging viewers not to 'understand' the significance of the poem in terms of meaning, but to see it as symptomatic of a particular moment in American history, when old taboos and/or standards of moral or civilized behavior were subject to intense scrutiny. The conservatism of the early Fifties had been superseded by a new spirit of adventure, encapsulated in Ginsberg's work, that looked forward to the spirit of the Sixties. James Franco offers a convincing characterization of Ginsberg, supported by memorable cameos from David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, and Bob Balaban as the main protagonists in the court case.
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Howl for expression
codyameschatman25 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Epstein and Friedman's depiction of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl is very well developed and although its progression of the message was slow and not to easy to follow at some points, it kept me satisfyingly intrigued throughout. They help you to understand what Howl as a poem truly represents, aside from the message Ginsberg was trying to convey, the most important aspect of the poem is its place in artistic history for the fight of free expression and freedom of speech. But what this film helps you to really grab an understanding for is that that is what the lines of Howl are all about, although many mistake the poem as just Ginsberg's expression of his "coming out" as a homosexual, if you take the time to read it or listen to Ginsberg explain the poem you'll see its more of an expression of expression, a "coming out" for any aspect of life that needed to be shown in such a perspective.
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Good acting by James Franco & effective portrayal of what happens when writing is attempted to be banned
mrncat29 September 2010
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."
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Howl is a classic, not a Hallmark Card
yennta8 October 2010
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 Mirrormask!!

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.
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Portrait of a Major Poet...and Philosopher
gradyharp5 January 2011
HOWL is a well-chosen name for this excellent movie. Yes, it indeed is a study of the creator of that significant poem - Allen Ginsberg - but the film seems to be more focused on bringing the audience to a level of appreciation of the impact that particular poem had on the world - of censorship, of bringing to the attention the parameters of varieties of sexuality and emotions, of the so called concept and rise of the Beat Generation - than it is in portraying the life history of the poet himself. Writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have combined archival footage of the real Allen Ginsberg and moments in the cafés where Howl was read along with very fine animation to relate the grotesque feelings of the poem in a way that enhances our understanding of this important work, and with that they have gathered an exemplary cast of actors to recreate the people that surrounded Ginsberg's life and experience with the courts.

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.

Grady Harp
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"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."
ackstasis20 May 2011
'Howl (2010)' is an offbeat experimental historical film about Allen Ginsberg's 1956 poem "Howl," the subject of a highly-publicised obscenity trial on its initial publication. James Franco plays Ginsberg, the reluctantly homosexual poet who poured his fears and frustrations into a four-part magnum opus, deemed a masterpiece and an obscenity in equal measure. I haven't read all that much poetry (though I have been known to recite Poe's "The Raven" in my most Vincent Price-ish voice), but I did like Ginsberg's poem, which is lyrical and evocative in a manner resembling the songwriting of Tom Waits. Several computer-animated sequences attempt to ascribe visuals to Ginsberg's words, but I wasn't sure about these: the CGI animation seemed too clean, too ordered, to represent such inner torment. Worth seeing, but perhaps not for everyone.
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A howl neat, clean, ironed and back to the closet
sandover4 November 2010
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.
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