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Groaning saxophones and stylistic, obscene language continue to reach ears 60 years removed from the beat generation, in the Allen Ginsberg biopic, “Howl.”
James Franco stars as Ginsberg in the nonlinear, visually appealing narrative of the poet and his most well-known piece. The film, in limited release, debuted at the Boulder Theater on Tuesday.
Ginsberg’s early life is depicted through black and white. This includes a reenactment of Ginsberg’s debut of the counter-culture defining poem, “Howl,” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery Reading in 1955. This reciting is accompanied by stunningly candid animation that attempts to provide a better understanding of the poem.
The controversy that surrounded the poem is presented through color images of the obscenity trials to determine whether “Howl” had any literary significance.
Is it possible to create a movie based on a single poem? “Howl” makes the case that this cannot be accomplished as the film rather primarily chronicles the life of Ginsberg. This is the part of the film that truly works because it is the only piece that resembles a narrative.
The rest of the film concentrates on confusing interpretations of the poet’s work. Ginsberg’s accounts of his indulgence in jazz and drugs, losing his mother to an insane asylum, all while gaining and losing love as a homosexual man, enthrall the audience to want to know more about this poet.
Little is done to keep this interest though, as the camera moves away from Ginsberg’s compelling past. For example, while the animation presented here is well done, it is distracting to see images of demonic hotels, acts of sacrificing babies to fire and a forest of penises while trying to understand this already confusing and complex poem. Attention is fixated on the images rather than trying to figure out what Ginsberg’s message is.
After the bombardment of overly-dramatic sequences of art, it is hard to invest in the poem because the possibility for unique interpretation is small.
Franco’s portrayal of Ginsberg doesn’t help matters. Franco is overly meticulous about the mannerisms of Ginsberg which comes across more as imitating than acting. Franco is not a stand out in this film, unlike prior films, (“Pineapple Express,” “Milk”) because he never makes the role his own. When he is reciting the poem, lines are frequently repeated and instead of resonating, the stanzas come across as annoying and it is difficult to understand the sequencing of the poem.
Thankfully, more attention is brought to the poem with the documentation of the historic court cases against the publishing of the poem. These scenes elicit most of the film’s humor and provide a strong performance by Jon Hamm as defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich. Hamm’s character does a good job convincing the audience why Ginsberg’s poem has literary value.
The drama of a strong court case is nonexistent though because the prosecuting attorney, Ralph McIntosh (played by David Strathairn) is a poor speaker and doesn’t present an effective case against Ginsberg. More fight from McIntosh is needed to relate to audiences how contested and groundbreaking “Howl” really was.
The value of Ginsberg’s poem comes through its ability to provide an outlet and a voice for people who were unable to express themselves freely in the conservative 1950s. The significance of the film’s counterpart is hard to find because it doesn’t have a clear focus as to who it is trying to inspire. The movie gives a great introspective look at the life of Allen Ginsberg but a yearning for the man’s work is still to be desired.
“Howl” is a great film for people who are already familiar with the work of Ginsberg. For those who are unfamiliar, they will have to seek their own understanding of the legendary poem elsewhere.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Ben Macaluso at Ben.firstname.lastname@example.org.