” . . . who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in
Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their
torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares,
alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and
lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, . . .”
The above passage (and several others), from the poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg, is tame in comparison to what is published today. In 1957, however, it rattled the powers-that-be and such the publisher of the work, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), was charged with obscenity. Using recreated interviews with the poet (played by James Franco), trippy animation inspired by the poem by Eric Drooker and dramatized portions of the trial, the film Howl tries to provide insight into the words and the man who put them to paper.
The result is an impressive biographical montage of sorts by writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman. Especially impressive since I found myself thoroughly engaged even though, a) the subject matter can be construed as rather bland and b) I went into Howl with my care or want of Ginsberg was as close to nil as possible. That’s saying something.
Ultimately, we find Ginsberg was influenced by nearly everything under the sun — his angst over the ever powerful and militarized establishment, his love for Jack Kerouac (and others), his fear his parents wouldn’t understand his homosexuality and a brief stint in a psychiatric ward. Franco steps comfortably into his shoes, reciting these feelings and instances as if they were his very own.
And just when a specific point is brought forth from his lips that requires further definition, the film changes gears to either the hippy-inspired, fluid “morphic” animations or the obscenity trial — using one to show the inspiration and the other to show the consequence. The graphics were a nice touch but I found the courtroom scenes the most captivating. Maybe it was because it was transfixing to see how unwavering the establishment was back then and how any “radical” thought or “vulgar” word was deemed a threat to society. Or perhaps it was because Jon Hamm, as the attorney for the defense, was immaculate in his presentation. Both reasons are equally valid.
Whether or not works like this (written, spoken, visual) or their ultimate acceptance into the public arena is the cause for society’s ills is fuel for another debate. Take notes, however, as the opening arguments, both pro and con, can be found from watching Howl. For the unargumentative at heart, don’t fret, the film is quite entertaining too.