‘Howl’ explores Beat masterwork of Allen Ginsberg

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:42pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The usual movie about a writer (like the usual movie about a musician) trots out some standard biographical hardships, builds suspense around a breakthrough moment and laboriously shows us how the work in question is related to the writer’s real life.

The new movie “Howl” has its problems, but give Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman credit for trying something different. This is a piecemeal approach to considering one of the crucial literary works of the mid-20th century.

The film, roughly speaking, has three spines, which twist around each other as the picture goes along. One section is devoted to the public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” in San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore in 1955. That event, and the arrival of the epic poem, would send shock waves through American culture.

The second thread is an interview Ginsberg gave in 1957, which provides some biographical data but more importantly some of what Ginsberg was trying to get at in “Howl.” These words are illustrated with snippets of scenes depicting Ginsberg’s friendships with such Beat-era icons as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.

The third section re-creates scenes from the 1957 obscenity trial against City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published “Howl” in book form. Although this is dramatically staged and features recognizable actors (kind of a mini-all-star cast, actually), apparently all the dialogue comes directly from trial transcripts, so there’s a documentary element to these scenes.

The trial offers a stimulating study for First Amendment fans. As the prosecutor (played by David Strathairn) tries to outduel the defense attorney (Jon Hamm, from “Mad Men”), witnesses give testimony about the literary value of “Howl.”

The actors who play the witnesses include Mary-Louise Parker and Treat Williams. Jeff Daniels is especially good as a pompous professor who proudly declares that he decided “Howl” was without merit in the first five minutes of reading it.

Ginsberg — who is not a part of the trial sequences, except via the reading of his poem — is played by James Franco, the lately inescapable actor from “Pineapple Express” and “Milk.”

Franco does a spirited job of re-creating Ginsberg’s vocal mannerisms and the poet’s open-hearted expansiveness. Homosexual, homely, the son of a mother committed to a mental institution, Ginsberg didn’t ask anybody’s permission to be liberated; he simply declared it.

The poem “Howl” is part of that declaration and it’s useful to hear it performed throughout the movie. Alas, the film has some serious problems, especially in the animation sequences that decorate the reading of “Howl”: The literal-minded approach is corny; it limits the poem instead of expanding it.

The bio material only hints at issues within Ginsberg’s life and the Beat community. But perhaps that’s part of the goal: to create a kind of tapestry around “Howl,” a game-changing poem. The results are mixed, but often bracing.


A fragmented look at the impact of Allen Ginsberg’s epic Beat poem “Howl,” arranged around scenes of the work’s first public reading and the 1957 obscenity trial that resulted from its publication. Some literal-minded animation is a miscalculation, but James Franco gives a spirited performance as Ginsberg.

Rated: R for language, subject matter

Showing: Northwest Film Forum

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