As Allen Ginsberg talks about his life and art, his most famous poem is illustrated in animation while the obscenity trial of the work is dramatized.
Writers: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Stars: James Franco, Todd Rotondi and Jon Hamm
Runtime: 84 Minutes
Popcorn Score: Large Popcorn
“Howl” is a movie about a poem. It is a very controversial poem, especially at its time, and also a very groundbreaking poem. I have to admit that I did not know much about the poem, or Allen Ginsberg for that matter before watching “Howl”. I still don’t really, but that is ok, I am going to talk about the movie itself, not give a synopsis on the meaning of the poem or a biography on Ginsberg. As I said, “Howl” is a movie about a poem, the controversy and outrage that it caused and subsequently the trial that it spawned in the United States court system.
At the beginning of the movie it says that every word following is something the people that are being portrayed actually said. I thought that was a very odd statement for what I thought was a fiction rather than a documentary, but what follows and how the story is put everything together, I completely understand how they held true to that statement.
The movie weaves three different pieces together: the first is readings of the poem from Ginsberg, portrayed by James Franco, which are set in the time of the poem’s release and usually in dark smoky basements of coffee houses. During these scenes the movie cuts away to very haunting cartoon images that portray the poem. Think the movie of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” only to a poem instead of music. The second piece is a series of interviews that were done in Ginsberg’s home, talking about his life, a bit about his overall writing style and the controversy of Howl. The final piece is set in the courtroom that shows the Obscenity Trial that was sparked because of the poem. This is the most enjoyable piece of the movie for me, I love court room dramas and the fact that all of the dialogue in these scenes were actually spoken, is really impressive. I don’t think the exchanges between the prosecutor, the defense, the judge and the witnesses could have been written better. These scenes also welcome Jon Ham as the defense attorney, Bob Balaban as the judge and a cameo by Jeff Daniels as a witness. Although I found the whole movie to be engaging, I thought these court scenes were the most entertaining.
If you are a lover of art, you will be pleased by the portrayal of the poem in cartoon. If you enjoy biographies, “Howl” delivers with at least a very interesting period of Ginsberg’s life. The film is a must for poetry lovers and literary scholars. And finally, if you are a courtroom drama fan, although it is only a part of the film, this movie delivers making it one of my favorites of the genre of all time.