Film Reviews

Howl Rob Epstein

Rating - 7/10

Movies about beat writers and the beat generation have never seemed to work; they've always fallen flat or suffered from ostentatious or sensationalist methods. Perhaps this is because, as Allen Ginsberg points out in this film "there's no such thing as the beat generation, it's just a bunch of guys trying to get published". So the thrilling, romantic and enthralling worlds that these writers create in their literature doesn't necessarily translate as being as interesting when you’re depicting them in the process of creating it, i.e. sat at a typewriter in the 1950s. So this is where the sensationalism usually sets in. However, this film restrains from this and its all the better for it. The film revolves solely around Ginsberg’s masterpiece of a poem ‘Howl’ and through two stages - its birth in 1955 as a young Ginsberg recites it amongst a sea of cigarette smoke and the hipster elite in a San Francisco coffee shop and then in 1957 after its publication, covering its obscenity trial and a separate interview with Ginsberg. Ginsberg himself is absent from the court proceedings as it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti that stood as the accused as he was responsible for publishing it via City Lights.

James Franco captures the soft, philosophic mumble that Ginsberg himself emitted. The performance is relatively solid and understated and portrays the humble and very human essence of the poet: a deeply sensitive human that almost overflowed with love, and regularly broke his own heart by falling head over heels for every (straight) man he seemed to meet. The film is interwoven by hallucinogenic animations that track the poem as it is recited throughout the film. However, this is probably where Howl finds itself on its weakest footing. The animation seems to act as a means to fill a space rather than add a dimension, or present a grasp on matters. Again resorting to the earlier raised issue, that there isn’t really footage that can capture the creative process or the physical outcome, so instead we get an animated interpretation of the goings on of the poem, that we don't really need.

The glory of the poem 'Howl' is the journey - your own as much as Ginsberg’s - so to have this dictated to you, sometimes feeling like there is a definitive outcome or textbook meaning to the poem, is a little unhinging, as of course this thinking is the antithesis of the very essence of the poem. It’s a short film and it works better because of it, it aims at only a snapshot of Ginsberg’s life and the beat era, it hints, alludes and briefly mentions of what came before and what came after, but for the most part it focuses on the fiery ball of energy that Howl unleashed upon San Francisco and the world. This was always going to be a challenging transition, the poem not only leapt from the pages but tangibly transported you to another world, the relentless and intensely rhythmic prose was your locomotive through Ginsberg’s world, rarely stopping or even slowing down. In short, its effect was intoxicating to the point of collapse. The film does not share the poem’s effect, cadence or intensity but it is a considerate and humble nod to the man who created it.