Howl (2010)

Written & Directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman will forever be a part of cinematic history for their spectacular documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which chronicles the life of non other than Harvey Milk, a San Francisco gay man who lived an uneasy life, but one worth noting for its passion, bravery and outlook. His was also a very sad story, which was brought to life in the Gus Van Sant film starring Sean Penn, Milk. I digress, but setting this film up by talking about a documentary previously made by the filmmakers is important to describe the style of this film. At the onset, they make the statement that every word spoken by the character in the film were spoken by the people whom the actors are portraying.

The actors are portraying a number of people, which is reflected in a great cast which includes David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker. The star of the film, however is James Franco, who plays famous Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. For those unfamiliar, Ginsberg, along with Jack Kerouac, was the most famous poet to come out of the Beat Movement in the 50s going into the 60s. His poem, and collection of poems, Howl, created quite the ruckus upon its release. Some found it to be course and vulgar and literarily unimportant and obscene. Others heralded it as a great work, which it stands as such today. This is the story of both the poem itself and the life of Ginsberg at the time, as well as the censoring trial that took place in response to Ginsberg’s sensational effort.

As I said, the film is documentary style, capturing the trial and intercutting it with interviews with Franco’s Ginsberg as well as a reading of the poem by Franco. The whole film seems like a great concept: take a real event with real people and use real dialogue while making the whole film essentially about a seminal work of poetry from the 20th century. The performances all around are spectacular, as has become expected from the actors involved, particularly Franco who seems to be on a hot streak. However, due to the structure of the film, non are ever really given the opportunity to shine. The trial scenes are spectacular, and like Exit Through the Gift Shop from last year, it really does a nice job of refelcting on the question “what is art and where does its validity come from?”

Epstein and Friedman use the camera like documentarians, but with the help of cinematographer Edward Lachman, they create a film that is just as beautiful and confusing as the poem itself. I think the fact that they were able to mirror the poem with the filmmaking is spectacular, though I would stop short of actually calling this film poetry by itself. But it is at times beautiful and really resonates with the human condition, especially that of the character of Ginsberg. But it also becomes confusing when the viewer becomes unfocused, much like when a reader becomes unfocused while reading a poem full of such imagry, allegory and symbolism as Ginsberg’s Howl. A strange film as I have not seen much of its kind. It worked most of the time and is a film that is worth checking out for fans of Ginsberg and Howl.

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