Sundance 2010 Review: HOWL
Editor's Note: This review was originally published on January 31 as a Sundance Film Festival review.
Writers/directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams
The year was 1956. The city was New York…the Big Apple…mecca of the beat generation, made up of hipsters, musicians, artists, and poets. One such poet was 29 year old Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), a man who would come to be known as a seminal figure of this subculture. A voice for and of his generation.
The year prior, Ginsberg wrote a three-part piece, which explored everything from his own experiences and memories of his travels along with the people he met along the way, the state of industrial civilization in the 40s and 50s and his stint in a psychiatric ward, for which he was placed in for being a homosexual (still seen as a disease during this time). It was also all in an iambic pentameter that had never been heard before. All intertwined with tales of sex, drugs, and jazz. This poem was called “Howl.”
There were some who felt that “Howl” was pornographic in its nature, language, and symbolism thus, as it was published in the fall of 1956, its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested on charges of obscenity and taken to trial, defended by attorney Jake Ehrlich (the charming Jon Hamm, whose firm portrayl fits in this time period and story just as fantastically as he does MAD MEN). It would be a trial that would question the very matter of art and the freedom of speech. It was this trial that would go on to make “Howl” Ginsberg’s most renowned poem, and set the bar for literary works, and art in general, for years to come.
HOWL the film, is told in a non-linear structure, exploring four separate aspects of “Howl,” the poem’s, genesis. From the first time it was performed aloud by young Ginsberg at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955 to the famous trial in October 1957 to Ginsberg’s recollection of writing the poem and its subsequent effects through a candid interview and even the poem itself materialized. Writers and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman deliver this layered pseudo-biopic in an unconventional fashion, matching the film’s style to its unconventional subject and source material. From the static cinematography in the tonally serious courtroom drama to the reading’s gritty black and white cinema verite style to the beautiful art deco, graphic novel-esque animation allowing us into the soul of the complex language of the poem. It works well and it works in the only way you could make a film about someone like Ginsberg and a poem like “Howl.” Both are so truly dense, yet somehow the film makes the ideas clear and accessible, pealing away the layers to reveal a genius, groundbreaking piece of art as well as the genius behind it.
As Ginsberg, Franco loses himself in the role, much like he did in playing another iconic and eccentric figure of the 50s with JAMES DEAN. The actor ceases to exists, leaving only a side of the young Ginsberg not many remember, if they ever even knew of it. Most identify with the image of a balding, plump little man with a lazy eye and sharp wit. Franco successfully shows us Ginsberg in his formative years, as he was quickly on the rise to becoming the man who would define a class of “angelheaded hipsters” and would speak up for the best minds of his generation that were destroyed by madness. Even to the point of perfectly capturing the poet’s unique delivery and speech patterns, as if every pause and drawn-out word the actor uses have been immaculately designed and strategically placed within.
In the end, HOWL is one of those films that recalls the past to focus on the present. As our society still grapples with the ideas of equality, acceptance, and the question of “What is right? What is just? What is art?” Ginsberg’s works are just as important today as they were yesterday, making HOWL a film of subsequent importance and societal commentary.