Viewing your Watchlist and recommended content requires Javascript

  • 15
  • Drama
  • 2010

Howl

Howl

Synopsis

A re-enactment of the 1957 obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl, starring James Franco

About

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.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: James Franco

In a nutshell

Less of a howl, more a polite murmur of approval, but a laudable exercise nonetheless.

by Ali Catterall

Latest from Film4...

  • Film4 Youth

    Youth

    Fred and Mick, two old friends now approaching 80, are on vacation together in an elegant hotel at the foot of the Alps. The two friends know that their time is quickly running out, and they decide to face their future together.

  • Film4 The Stranger Wore a Gun

    The Stranger Wore a Gun

    Randolph Scott stars in a Western about a former spy who relocates to Ariozna to join a gold robbbery, but quickly reassesses his decision

    On Film4: 21 Apr 1:05PM

  • Channel 4 Blog

    Mike Leigh announces new film, Peterloo

    Mike Leigh's next project will look at Peterloo - the infamous 1819 massacre by government forces at a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter's Field in Manchester, when 700 working people were inju

  • Channel 4 Blog

    Four Film4-backed films selected In Competition at Cannes 2015

    Four Film4-backed films ¿ Todd Haynes¿ Carol, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, Paolo Sorrentino¿s Youth and Justin Kurzel¿s Macbeth ¿ have been invited into official selection at this year¿s Cannes film

Register with Film4.com

Personalise your Film4 experience

  • Set film reminders
  • Build your watchlist
  • Get film suggestions

or Register

Share