This week Noir Films is proud to recommend ‘Howl’. It’s about the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the poem he wrote entitled ‘Howl’, and the obscenity trial that followed the poem’s publication. From the film’s website:
James Franco stars as the young Allen Ginsberg—poet, counter-culture adventurer, and chronicler of the Beat Generation. In his famously confessional, leave-nothing-out style, Ginsberg recounts the road trips, love affairs, and search for personal liberation that led to the most timeless and electrifying work of his career: the poem HOWL. Meanwhile, in a San Francisco courtroom, HOWL is on trial. Prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) sets out to prove that the book should be banned, while suave defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) argues fervently for freedom of speech and creative expression. The proceedings veer from the comically absurd to the passionate as a host of unusual witnesses (Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola) pit generation against generation and art against fear in front of conservative Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban).
HOWL is simultaneously a portrait of a renegade artist breaking down barriers to find love and redemption, and an imaginative ride through a prophetic masterpiece that rocked a generation and was heard around the world.
While some may refer to me as a scholarly cat, as one with a fondness for literature, I’m woefully unfamiliar with the world of poetry. Beyond knowing the name ‘Allen Ginsberg’ and having some faint understanding that the name was somehow worth knowing but now knowing why, I knew nothing about the subject of the film. So beyond the obvious caveat of being a well made film (why would it be worth mentioning if it wasn’t?), you may be asking yourself why I flashed with the film if I’m not a poetry-geek or someone who knows much about the beat generation.
The answer lies in Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman’s script and James Franco’s depiction of Ginsberg. From his being a homosexual in a world where even uttering the word was an inexcusable faux pas, to being in a mental institution to “correct” what was then viewed as aberrant sexual behavior, to the necessity to write about life in an honest way, and to his eventual acceptance of himself and what he wanted from life, this film is about trusting in your humanity and having the courage exist without pretense or self-recrimination. All this is juxtaposed against the obscenity trial brought against the publisher of ‘Howl’ and some fantastic animated sequences depicting passages of Ginsberg’s landmark work.
This culminates into a film that works on several levels. There is an intellectual thread as to the nature of obscenity and its relationship to works of art brought into play via the trial. There is a wonderful human story that is Ginsberg’s life, and then there is a recitation of Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ that gives us a visceral taste of how Ginsberg and his kin perceived America in the 1950s. It’s an uncommonly good movie, and one which I’m sure many of you will enjoy.