Review – Howl

Howl co-directors Jeffery Friedman & Rob Epstein

by James Olsen for FILMbutton

In 1956, Allen Ginsberg wrote his poem Howl. In 1957, City Light Books, the company that published it in book form, was taken to court over the perceived indecency of the work. Over the course of 90 minutes, the audience is introduced to the poem in three formats.

First, we have the court scenes, illustrating the case as it unfolds. Second, we have a reading of the poem in its entirety, both with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) reading the poem to an enthralled crowd and as an animated piece. Third, we have documentary-style film of Ginsberg answering an almost-entirely invisible reporters questions about the poem.

As Ginsberg, Franco is taking on his second major gay role in two years, which is likely the stuff of nightmares to many Hollywood agents and managers.

The audience for sold out opening night screening of Howl at Inside Out

His clear desire to go after the parts he wants instead of what is considered “safe” led one audience member to call him the next Johnny Depp. While the idea behind the comparison is understandable, I feel this is a slight to Franco, as many of his recent works show a range far more varied than we have seen from Depp in a while. While many of the actors come and go in the film fairly quickly, Franco carries two-thirds of the film handily, and shows true star power. The other third, also expertly handled by Jon Hamm as Defense Attorney Jake Ehrlich, David Strathairn as Prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, and Bob Balaban as Judge Clayton W. Horn.

The beauty of Howl, though, is that it uses all of these people, Ginsberg included, solely for the purpose of telling the story of the poem. Who any of these people are is of no relevance outside of what impact they have on the poem or the impact it has had on them. Looking back, with the 20/20 hindsight, it is almost amusing to see the arguments about how this poem would never have any literary value or legitimate place in the history of literature.

At this point, I must add that I am not a fan of poetry, and have never even heard of Howl, let alone read it, before this film. I was able to read a copy in advance of the screening, and was extremely impressed with the passion behind the words and the imagery presented. This same passion is easily present in the film as Franco reads it to us. However, it was the court session that I was ultimately most drawn to story-wise, as a look at a piece of history in the fight for freedom of expression.

You certainly don’t need to have read the poem in advance like I did to enjoy the film, however I believe the interview segment will be of the most interest to those who already know Ginsberg and his work. Some audience members questioned the particular choice in animation style, and while it may have been a little more stylized at times than it needed to be, I consider this a small quibble.

Ultimately, this is a deftly handled film, and the interest in making a quality piece on the part of the filmmakers is very evident.

Howl co-directors Jeffery Friedman & Rob Epstein during Q&A

The love they have for the poem and their respect for the man lead to a true dedication to accuracy in the storytelling whereby all the dialogue was taken from court transcripts, interviews, and the poem itself with only minor changes where needed.

This isn’t a film that people NEED to go and see, but the message it tells is an important one about literary freedoms and the unexpected beauty that can be found in words.

James Olsen is an avid photographer who loves film, TV, music and just about anything in the arts. He hails from out East but calls Toronto his home.

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