Howl

Almost a year ago I posted about the movie Howl and how much I wanted to see it, and a couple of weeks ago I finally managed to watch it on DVD. The movie is about the obscenity trial that Lawrence Ferlinghetti went through for the publication of Howl, the seminal Beat poem by Allen Ginsberg.

Howl is not a biopic nor does it give an exhaustive portrait of Ginsberg. The movie contains three main strands: Ginsberg reading Howl to a beautifully animated interpretation of the poem; Ginsberg being interviewed and discussing the poem and his life experiences; and the obscenity trial itself. The narrative switches between these three strands and provides an impressionistic view of Ginsberg in the mid 1950s.

James Franco gives a considered and thoughtful performance as Allen Ginsberg and I thought he did an excellent job. The film also stars John Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, and Todd Rotondi, who looks eerily like Jack Kerouac. My favourite part of the film was the animation by New York artist Eric Drooker. I thought that these animated scenes gave huge clarity to the meaning of Howl and enriched the poem immensely. Apparently Ginsberg was a fan of Drooker’s and the two had worked together on Illuminated Poems. I think Drooker’s familiarity with the work greatly enhanced the cinematic interpretation.

Most of all the movie succeeds in showing how important this obscenity trial was to the freedom of creative expression currently enjoyed by artists in America. It was almost like the counterculture was accepted by the establishment for the first time. Definitely worth a watch.

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