Tense psychological thriller written, directed by and starring Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur.
A re-enactment of the 1957 obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl, starring James Franco
This is a worthy film about poetry. If you're still with us, it is specifically a film about the groundbreaking trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg's free-verse poem 'Howl'. Although considered a modern American classic nowadays, and a staple of college reading lists, it was accused by some unhip squares back in the mid-1950s of being a corrupt assault on literature - leading to Ginsberg's publisher Laurence Ferlinghetti being dragged to court on obscenity charges. Authors! See how painless it is being a controversialist? Not only will your publisher take the rap in your place, you will also benefit from the resulting publicity!
For their feature debut, writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman faithfully recreate the main attraction, with dialogue sourced from the (often laughable) trial transcripts - while also presenting a Portrait of the Poet as a Young Beatnik. There are dramatised flashbacks of encounters with fellow beats Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, and of ‘Howl''s inaugural performance to an ecstatic, smoke-filled San Francisco coffee house crowd - poetry slam, 1955-style.
Woven into this, via a somewhat familiar conceit beloved of biopic makers, is a re-enactment of an early, real-life interview with the underground icon, brilliantly played here by James Franco. "There was no Beat Generation", a horn-rimmed, pre-beard-and-beads Ginsberg corrects his unseen interviewer. "It was just a bunch of guys trying to get published." It's a rare note of flippancy in a film otherwise genuflecting with pop-eyed reverence and earnestness for the man and his meisterwerk (roughly, one-part pretentious awfulness to two-parts genius).
Howl is a pass notes of a movie, with added cigarette smoke and be-bop. And it is ironic indeed that, while focusing on the creation, demonization and rehabilitation of such a notorious, passionate and revolutionary piece of art, the film couldn't be more mannered, restrained or bourgeois in execution. "You can't translate poetry into prose - that's why it's poetry" the defence tells the courtroom. By the same token, you might concur that animating long stretches of Ginsberg's epic - and with all-too literalised animation at that - was a conceit too far. Well, many wouldn't stanza for it.
That said, you cannot fault the filmmakers' intention, and it is a noble one: to remind present day audiences of how much prejudice Ginsberg (gay, outspoken, uncompromising) had to face; how far we have come in the interim; and how much further we have to go.
Less of a howl, more a polite murmur of approval, but a laudable exercise nonetheless.
Shooting has started in Cincinnati on The Killing of a Sacred Deer,¿ which reunites Colin Farrell with director/producer Yorgos Lanthimos, following the critical and commercial success of The Lobster.
39 titles from Film4's library will be launched to buy or rent on iTunes and Amazon on August 1st, 2016. The collection includes classics and award-winners which will be available for digital download
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