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Review: Allen Ginsberg pieced together in Howl

Review: Allen Ginsberg pieced together in Howl

Source: AssociatedPress

By: Jake Coyle

Critic's Rating: 3/5

Friday 24 September 2010

Movie Title

Review: Allen Ginsberg pieced together in Howl

Director

Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Star Cast

James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, Aaron Tveit

An interesting combination of courtroom drama, historical recreation and animated poetry, Howl is reverent enough about Allen Ginsberg that it doesn't even try to bring him to life on celluloid.

The film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is mostly content with docudrama imitation.

Howl is split three ways, skipping between each segment: Ginsberg's first public reading at the smoky Six Gallery in 1955 San Francisco, presented in black-and-white; an interview with the poet in 1957, recreated from numerous interviews; and the famous trial of the same year in which Ginsberg's poetry was alleged to be obscene.

The film introduces its origins plainly as "composed from court readings, interviews and Howl."

In the reading and interview scenes, James Franco gamely attempts the daunting role of the iconic poet. Howl doesn't allow for a full performance, leaving Franco to mostly only grasp at imitation. He does well enough (particularly in the interview scenes) with Ginsberg's halting intonation and glint of mischief.

The courtroom scenes are the film's best mainly because they supply some drama and are populated almost exclusively by fine actors. The trial was a notable case in 1st amendment rights, and considerably helped Ginsberg's fame.

Jon Hamm plays the defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich, whose commanding orations and witness cross examinations are distinctly Don Draper-esque ? which is to say, fairly riveting. This is an actor whose very presence ? removed, impatient, fiercely intelligent ? is charged.

Claiming Howl is indecent is prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh, played by David Strathairn. He plays McIntosh as close-minded but genuinely searching for answers to a work of art he can't understand. He asks what "angel-headed hipsters" are with real curiosity.

Trotted to the stand are various literary experts played by Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Alessandro Nivola. As an academic straining to hide his shallow perspective with an arrogant air, Daniels, in particular, shines. Fooling no one, he calls the poem's protagonist "a drifter of dadaist persuasion."

The poem's reading is often accompanied by psychedelic animation by former Ginsberg illustrator Eric Drooker. The animations ? the worst part of the film ? visualize the words of Howl: a generic figure throws himself off a rooftop, a dark factory morphs into a bull, a saxophone breathes fire.

There are flashbacks to Ginsberg's memories, too, where we see Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) and Ginsberg's lover, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit). But these scenes are flimsy and no attempt is made to characterize Kerouac or Cassady as anything but handsome romantics.

All the various devices employed by Howl are to illuminate Ginsberg and his most famous poem.

As a love letter to Howl, the movie cannot be denied. The language is soaked into the film and lines like "I'm with you in Rockland!" reverberate. The courtroom scene supplies analysis of the poem, which have a kind of staid inspiration. As Judge Clayton Horn, Bob Balaban pronounces: "An author should be real."

Someday, a film about the Beats will capture such vibrancy. Howl is humble and worthy, but far too passionless. One hungers for a movie about, as Ginsberg says in the film, "just a bunch of guys, trying to get published."

Howl, an Oscilloscope Laboratores release, is not rated.

Running time: 84 minutes

Rating: Two star and a half stars out of four

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