Howl (2010)

Howl (2010) — So first I need to start off by saying this movie was not what I expected. I was more-or-less expecting a straightforward legal drama about one of the last works of poetry/literature to be tried for obscenity. To be certain the film is about that, but is anything but a straightforward legal drama. In some respects (as the opening disclaimer reads) it is like a documentary. All the dialogue in the film is either from a) Allen Ginsberg’s first 1955 reading of Howl, b) a 1957 interview with Ginsberg, or c) the actual court transcripts of the obscenity trial. So no dialogue has been created by the screenwriters; it all comes from reality. James Franco plays Ginsberg and he does a good job of it.  His interviews make him sound like alternately an unconventional genius and a self-absorbed ass (Ginsberg may have been some combination of the two). The trial scenes are also very effective, eschewing the over-the-top histrionics of most courtroom dramas and rather carrying on like most trials: a civil debate over the merits of an argument. David Straithairn is the somewhat prudish prosecutor and Jon Hamm the skilled defense. As defendant Lawrence Ferlinghetti (on trial for publishing “obscene” materials,” Ginsberg himself was not prosecuted), actor Andrew Rogers never says a word as his fate is decided by other men. Mary-Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, and Jeff Daniels play the various literary experts called to testify as to the merits or lack thereof of Howl. A move that puts this film somewhat into the experimental category is the animation sequences used to bring Franco’s reading of Howl to life. That’s also where this film is going to lose a lot of people but I found these extended sequences hypnotic. Anyway Howl is worth checking out for anyone who likes movies that experiment with form and style or any aficionados of Beat Generation writers.

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