38. Howl (2010)

A cinematic poetry reading… anyone?

Directed by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Written by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker and Jon Hamm

If you’re not really into 20th Century poets and you don’t fall for all that fanshy smanshy lit lovin’ stuff (or you simply don’t know) the name Allen Ginsburg may not be in your vocabulary. That’s fine – it doesn’t take away from this largely vocal, visual and emotively powerful film that turns poetry into a cinematic experience. But like poetry readings themselves, not everyone finds it as inspiring as others – so I wouldn’t say it caters to every person out there.

As Ginsburg’s work ‘Howl’ and other poems were published with controversy in the late 50’s, Howl brings to life the trial that debated whether Ginsburg’s art was simply obscenity or something of social importance and literary value, animating it (quite literally) with explosively bizarre and abstract imagery and interviews with the writer himself.

Speaking up... but not everyone might want to hear this one.

Through stories of his experiences as a homosexual, in a time where homosexuality was considered a mental illness, Ginsburg’s intimate observations of the world around him and his own acute self-awareness against this dystopic background is not only rendered engaging and compelling through the film’s sense of pace and rhythm (much like a poem) but also through a uniquely hopeful and touching element that is brought about by James Franco’s portrayal of the poet. There’s a catch of humour, a sense of passionate fun and through it all, the feeling that this poem is part of something greater than merely ‘obscenity’.

True, the film does a lot to make you feel that way. But I wouldn’t say that it forces you into that position. Howl travels through Ginsburg’s poem with depth and incredible detail, but in doing so, also invites the viewer to understand the poem enough to be able to develop their own opinion on the subject and to judge whether the poem, or even the film, deserves artistic merit and appreciation. The two people sitting next to me surely decided it was rubbish, because they scoffed and left half way through the film.

Having said that, Howl deserves some recognition for layering the power of animation, live action film and poetry together into a work that invites the viewer (whether they know Ginsburg or not) to listen to the voice of a contemporary poet who was able to give such an exciting and sublime expression to his thoughts and experiences – thereby providing insight into the world around him at the time. Literary and cinematic value is written all over it.


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