Howl

howl-2-franco

B+

“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”Jack Kerouac

Kerouac and Ginsberg were very much built the same way on the inside, even though they probably didn’t realize it at the time. On the outside, Ginsberg was shy, reserved and bookish while Kerouac was handsome, chiseled and generally a man’s man. Opposite ends of the social spectrum, but still outsiders peeping in on the worlds of people they both highly regarded. The beat kids, Burroughs, Carr and Cassady — these are the angelheaded hipsters and mad ones burning through the night, dawdled after and journaled by Ginsberg and Keroauc.

Howl was, among other things, an ode to Ginsberg’s co-conspirators. A generation of writers whose excess was only surpassed by a proclivity for documenting their transgressions and outrage with the post-war world in which they existed. Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, whose previous documentary work includes The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet, tackle the extremely difficult task of bringing this epic poem to film. Howl isn’t a typical biopic. The directors do their best to attack the poem from four different angles: An older Ginsberg recounting the writing and experiences that begat the poem, a courtroom scene from the obscenities trial brought against the poem, the first telling of the poem by Ginsberg in San Francisco and lastly, various animated sequences illustrating the poem’s many themes and symbolism.

The directors chose to dissect the poem and spread it out over the course of the entire film, rather than feed it to the audience in one large helping. It’s a wise choice — the linear narrative of the obscenities trial moves the audience in the forward direction a feature needs, with the poem and interview sections serving to illuminate the finer details of the trial. Further breaking up the reading of the poem are the animated sequences, which take over as Franco narrates the poem in Ginsberg’s electrifying cadence.

James Franco’s acting is phenomenal and even more so when you reflect that the majority of the performance was done in a faux-documentary interview style, where the only interaction he had was with the camera. Franco is able to convey the many depths of Ginsberg’s emotional range as he recounts the stories and experiences upon which Howl was built. The nuances in Franco’s facial expressions and the small silences convey more tone than the words themselves.

Howl is a well thought out film. Each section is a just collaboration with its neighbor. For audience members unfamiliar with the poem, Howl serves as a generalized but fully realized introduction. For the seasoned Ginsberg enthusiast, the film brings the poem to new, possibly unfamiliar territory. The animation may elicit new, more visceral responses than ever before. Howl is a wonderfully executed celebration of the work on which it’s based, as well as the writings and life of Allen Ginsberg.

tags: allen ginsberg, howl, james franco

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