HOWL (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, 2010)

Allen Ginsberg’s rhythmic, gripping, Whitmanian Howl was first published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who the following year in San Francisco, as a result, was put on trial for obscenity. The poem, among the highlights of the Beat movement, is read in its entirety, by James Franco, who portrays Ginsberg, in the film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman that takes its title from the poem, which begins, “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 . . . .” The film is slight, even fragile perhaps, but so are those who became casualties of the complacency and reactionary meanness of postwar America in the fifties. In Howl, amidst inverted visions of waking urban nightmare, Ginsberg is also documenting harsh truths about the objective world in which he finds himself. In prefacing script, former documentarians Epstein and Friedman note that every word in the film was spoken or written by the actual persons to whom they are attributed. They are honoring Ginsberg’s conviction that language embodies ultimate reality.
     The film, some of which is drawn from an interview Ginsberg gave at the time of the trial, is as autobiographical as the poem itself. How one wants Franco to be as good as Ginsberg as Rip Torn once was playing Walt Whitman. He isn’t quite—although a coda providing archival moments with Ginsberg seamlessly merges with Franco’s fine performance. The film’s principal failure lies instead with its fanciful use of psychedelic color animation that jars with the gritty grays of the prevailing black and white and most sloppily evokes Ginsberg’s drug-enhanced flights of imagination. This touch of Disney adds nothing that convinces.
     On balance, however, the film is sound as a hymn to freedom of expression, which it relates to Ginsberg’s homosexuality as well as poetic (hence political) speech, and the obscenity trial judge’s summary judgment deeply moves—although, of course, that there ever was such a trial in the first place is insane.
     Previously, Epstein had made The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), and he and Friedman together made Paragraph 175 (2000), about Nazi persecution of homosexuals. They remain important filmmakers.
     Portland’s own Gus Van Sant is one of Howl’s executive producers.

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