'Howl' is softened into a polite request

Movie review

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The best minds of Hollywood are still trying to get a handle on the 1950s Beat Generation. All those drugs, sex, leotards and beards, you know, should make great "cinema." Otherwise, why make this film inspired by one incantatory poem and the forgotten controversy it sparked?

"Howl" (the poem) gained the then-unknown New York writer Allen Ginsberg notoriety when its publication was confiscated by San Francisco authorities. The seizure was tossed out by a local judge in 1957.


2 stars = Mediocre
Ratings explained
  • Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn.
  • Rating: Not rated. Contains adult language, sexual themes and graphic representation of sex.

The hero in this case was not the poet, but the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who printed Mr. Ginsberg's long poem, then defended its publication in court. In the film "Howl," Mr. Ferlinghetti, played by Andrew Rogers, never utters a word.

Fit and trim James Franco is an unlikely Ginsberg who chants plenty of words in that "Ginzy" sing-song that characterized the Beat poet's public performances. But, like filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman, who co-wrote and directed, Mr. Franco struggles with the ambivalent nature of the project.

They can't settle on one thread -- Ginsberg's biography, the drama of the court case or the poem itself, reproduced in animated form designed by Eric Drooker.

The three roads fail to converge into one path of understanding and information that would aid viewers in appreciating "Howl" as a work of poetics rather than an inflammatory list of dirty words and sex that seemed shocking in 1957 culture.

Part of the difficulty is the faux documentary courtroom scenes based on the actual transcripts. Familiar actors Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker and Bob Balaban look great in period dress, yet they come across as simply professional actors reading lines. The context is inadequate.

Ginsberg's life is the second part of the film, sketched in cursory fashion with references to his mother's madness and spiced a bit with actors playing Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the real road warriors and the poet's Beat buddies. Aaron Tveit makes a good Peter Orlovsky look-alike as Ginsberg's longtime partner.

The third element of animation, an abstraction in grays and darker tones, serves as a visual equivalent of the poem's words read by Mr. Franco in scenes that move from a Ginsberg reading in a San Francisco coffeehouse to Mr. Drooker's angular figures in various stages of distress.

However, the graphic nature of the art is really representation, not elucidation.

"Howl" the poem seems quaint and naive today, but the work remains an essential reference point for 1950s American poetry and was the launching pad for Ginsberg's remarkable career.

"Howl" the film, despite its ambitious structure, skims the surfaces of the poem's meaning and history without digging too deeply into the despair and paranoia of its time.

Opens today at the Regent Square Theater.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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