‘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.

“Howl”

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

Talk to us

More in Life

Josh Haazard Stands inside his workspace, the HaazLab, where he creates a variety of cosplay props and other creative gadgets, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, at his home in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
This contraption crafter turns junk into sci-fi weaponry

Joshamee “The Chief” Haazard is a costume prop maker in Monroe. He transforms trash into treasure.

Shawn McQuiller of Kool & The Gang performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on Sunday, May 8, 2022, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Kool & The Gang and Average White Band are coming soon to a casino near you. Queensryche also is due in Arlington.

For your kids’ sake, stress less about their grades this school year

Don’t make a big deal over grades. Instead, encourage out-of-classroom activities and remember, learning is supposed to be fun.

At the prehistoric fortress of Dun Aengus, the dramatic west cliffs of Ireland meet the turbulent sea as Europe comes to an abrupt end. (Rick Steves' Europe)
Enjoy the simple life on Ireland’s starkly beautiful Aran Islands

Three limestone islands make up the Aran Islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer.

American Queen changes COVID protocols; can I get a refund?

fter American Queen changes its COVID protocols, Patricia Voorhees Furlong and her husband want to skip their river cruise. Is that allowed? Or, will they lose out on $7,858?

Preston Brust, left, and Chris Lucas of LOCASH perform during CMA Fest 2022 on Thursday, June 8, 2022, at the Chevy Riverfront Stage in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

The country music duo Locash drops by the Angel of the Winds Casino on Saturday. And there’s the Summer Meltdown festival at its new home near Snohomish all weekend.

‘Poco Orange’ Red Hot Poker. (Terra Nova Nurseries)
Warmer weather means brighter, hotter colors in the garden

Here are seven plants that will bring a blazing pop of color to your outdoor spaces.

Bruce Johnson has an exhibit on the history of clowns at the Lynnwood Library in Lynnwood, Washington on August 11, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Clown historian takes the funny business very seriously

Bruce Johnson, a.k.a “Charlie the Juggling Clown,” wants to pass his craft down to future generations.

Ella Larson, left, and Simon Fuentes sort through blueberries at Hazel Blue Acres on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Fruits, flowers and bees aplenty in Arlington farm fete

First-ever event highlights local growers’ bounty and contributions to local community

Most Read