An informative, if disjointed, look at Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the ramifications it had on its author and censorship.
An informative, if disjointed, look at Allen
Ginsberg’s Howl and the ramifications it had on its author and censorship.
authors, and their related works, rarely excel at grabbing public interest. The
exception being the likes of Shakespeare
In Love (1998) but then most cinemagoers are unlikely to have heard of Allen Ginsberg. This film will no doubt
change that, but more than anything it seems to tie in nicely with the recent
furor concerning the banning of The Human
Centipede 2 by the BBFC. This is not to compare that film to Ginsberg’s
expressive and heartfelt poem as so much as to point out that at the time Howl
was considered too racy and the publishers stood trial disseminating obscene
The film is
divided into three key sections. The first is an interview with Ginsberg,
played with shy nuance by James Franco,
as he discusses his life and inspirations for the poem Howl. The second is
Franco’s reading of the poem as seen through an animated interpretation of the
words. Finally we witness the trial of the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti as his defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Hamm) goes toe-to-toe with prosecution
lawyer Ralph MacIntosh (Strathairn)
in trying to convince the judge that Howl is a legitimate piece of literature
rather than the immoral rhetoric it is accused of being.
sections all overlap and intercut with relative ease. The animation is
impressive, if at times a little too literal, and gives a visceral portrayal of
the poem itself. As Ginsberg, Franco continues to prove to be one of the most
talented actors working today. Able to transform absolutely into the part you
wonder if he is in fact channeling the spirit of the man. Certainly his
performance gives us a clear insight into what made Ginsberg tick and how he
used life’s adversities to spawn original and liberal thinking.
However, it is
the court case that most intrigues and unfortunately falls by the way side
compared to the other sections. Watching Mad Men’s John Hamm square up against
a reserved and insecure looking David Strathairn makes for genuinely intriguing
viewing. In fact these moments, which include all manner of intellects played
by familiar faces, shed more light on the impact of the poem at the time than
the poem itself. Suffice to say much of the uproar was down to homosexual
suggestion and profane language, things that in the current climate are not
only perfectly acceptable but also tame by comparison to certain horror films.
Of course like
the BBFC’s banning of Centipede the court case surrounding Howl would
ironically make it all the more interesting to people who would otherwise never
have heard of it. From an informative point of view Howl certainly succeeds. It
gives a clear insight into Ginsberg’s inspiration and drive while further
indulging in his unique poetry. By the end though it feels a little episodic
and as such would be more fulfilling if the Ginsberg section and court case
were more closely entwined with each other. Poetry in motion; perhaps, educational digest; certainly.