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HOWL (director/writer: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; cinematographer: Edward Lachman; editor: Jake Pushinsky; music: Carter Burwell; cast: James Franco (Allen Ginsberg), David Strathairn (Ralph McIntosh), Jon Hamm (Jake Ehrlich), Bob Balaban (Judge Clayton Horn), Alessandro Nivola (Luther Nichols), Treat Williams (Mark Schorer), Mary-Louise Parker (Gail Potter), Todd Rotondi (Jack Kerouac), Jon Prescott (Neal Cassady), Aaron Tveit (Peter Orlovsky), Jeff Daniels (David Kirk); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Elizabeth Redleaf, Christine Kunewa Walker, Mr. Epstein and Mr. Friedman; Oscilloscope Laboratories; 2010)
It’s a decent film, but I just wanted it to be better than that since I cared so much for the poet and what he stood for.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sincere film about Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “Howl,” which the then 29-year-old unpublished poet read in San Francisco. The poem with vulgar language and verses about gay sex was faced with a groundbreaking 1957 obscenity trial over whether to ban the book. It’s written and directed by noted documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk”/”The Celluloid Closet”/”Word Is Out”) as a feel-good film, one that promotes freedom of speech and creative expression. Unfortunately their lack of experience as narrative filmmakers show, as the loosely structured pic had the doc part suck the life out of the film.

The film comes alive only when a young Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) reads his Howl poem and it’s accompanied by low-tech animations that were beautifully created hallucinogenics by the artist Eric Drooker, but flattens out into dullish documentary form when it covers the trial (in which poet/publisher/bookstore-owner of City Lights Lawrence Ferlinghetti stood trial for publishing the work) and by not knowing whether to be a doc or a narrative the film was left on shaky ground. It goes further off center when it moves in a third direction, depicting a young Ginsberg expound in a confessional manner to a reporter on the important early events of his life: meeting Jack Kerouac at Columbia, his first queer love affair with the adventurer Neal Cassady, his challenging stay for 8 months in a mental hospital, his mom being in and out of mental hospitals her entire life, wanting approval from teacher/poet dad, and leaving the dry business world to fulfill his destiny as an underground poet who was associated with the Beat World. The problem with the confessional part is that it treats the poet as a cultural-icon figure and never gets into enough of the poet’s emotional trials to make him a real flesh-and-blood person.

During the trial the smooth defense attorney (Jon Hamm) for Ferlinghetti and the hard-pressed clueless prosecutor (David Strathairn) have a nice go at it in trial, with a few hostile (Mary-Louise Parker & Jeff Daniels) witnesses for the prosecutor and a few friendly (Treat Williams & Alessandro Nivola) witnesses for the defense. The Soloman-like judge (Bob Balaban) will rule in favor of the defense and thereby for artistic freedom.

Franco’s sensitive performance nails the poet’s humanistic generosity, immense intellect, and his unapologetic stance over his life habits. But even though the directors empathize with the poet and are passionate about telling it the way it was for the poet coming out, it failed to be an exciting or memorable film or a work that cut through to the present. It’s only the still revolutionary cutting words of Howl (read with great passion by Franco) that lift the film out of the past and allows us a chance to understand why the poet, who died in 1997, at age 70, was one of the great 20th century voices for those who cherish freedom.

It’s a decent film, but I just wanted it to be better than that since I cared so much for the poet and what he stood for. I believe if you removed the overlong courtroom scenes (that’s for another pic) and took more time to explore the depths of the poet so we knew him better, the pic would instantly improve and be more of a Howl.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”