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Howl

a film by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

    I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
            dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;
    Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
            in the machinery of night;


These are the opening lines of the poem that not only helped to define a generation and change the written word forever, but also helped to loosen the tightening grip of censorship that had a firm stranglehold on Eisenhower's America. This is not mere hyperbole on my part either - this poem, and the 1957 obscenity trial that followed its 1955 publication, really were a groundbreaking work and a culture-shattering court case respectively. And it is in these two aspects of Howl - Beat Generation poet and spokesperson Allen Ginsberg's creation of and his explanation of what led him to write these zeitgeistic "obscene odes on the windows of the skull", and the San Francisco trial of poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti upon his publication of Ginsberg's work - that filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have modeled their film around.

Part biopic, part pseudo-documentary, part court drama (or comedy in some cases), part animated experimental dream, part poetry reading, Howl the movie, is in many ways much like "Howl" the poem - haphazard and vulgar to the uneducated, but illuminating to those in the know. Not a film for everyone - just like the poem is not for everyone (it is sad to say, but I would guess the vast majority of today's filmgoers, upon being asked who Allen Ginsberg was, would stare at you as if you had a monkey growing out of the side of your head) - Howl is indeed a film for those who have read and have had their mind's edified by Ginsberg and his Beat brethren. To those who are "with it", Howl the movie, is a cinematic presentation of "Howl" the poem (it is read in its entirety throughout the film) that perhaps does not actually capture the feel of what Ginsberg and his generation were doing in their revolutionary writing, but at least does capture the feel of excitement over reading said epic work of modernist metered mayhem in a world that today, especially the last decade or so, seems almost as if even more archaic and repressed than those days during the 1957 obscenity trial.

Granted, the filmmakers never delve all that deeply into the Ginsbergian eye of their subject, and the courtroom scenes are rather superfluous (really, they are not needed for what the film is trying to say) but when the camera is on James Franco, and his pitch-perfect doppelganging of Ginsberg, as he explains his poem and those people and things which influenced it to an unseen reporter, the film is right on - feeling a lot like the spontaneous bop poetics, influenced by the Beats' love of Jazz, that has always engulfed the works of Ginsberg and Kerouac and Burroughs and their ilk. A poetic movie for lovers of poetry (this critic being one of them - my own poetic works have been influenced by Ginsberg more than any other dead poet of lore) and a grandiose performance by Franco (the poster says "James Franco IS Allen Ginsberg" for a reason) Howl the movie delivers, if not an equal of such a milestone poetic work as Ginsberg's, a still richly textured peek through those aforementioned "windows of the skull". [11/14/10]

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