Saturday, 19 February 2011


Dir.: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman.
With: James Franco, Jon Hamm.

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’.

Thus begins the poem ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg, a poem that caused an uproar after its first publication in 1956. The film attempts to deconstruct the poem’s origins and its effect on the public. It is not a biography per se, nor is it a documentary, however every line in the film is taken from an official recording or an interview with the people involved in the scandal. Essentially, what we get is a mixture of the courtroom drama at the obscenity trial started against the poem’s publisher, Allen Ginsberg’s revealing interview after the publication, a black and white montage of his life before 1955, his first public recital of the poem at a coffee house and a surreal animation that attempts to evoke some of the poem’s imagery.

My favourite part of this mish-mash is the interview; James Franco gives a very measured yet naturalistic performance as Ginsberg. When you hear him speak of his life, its ups and downs and the reasons for writing Howl, it is as if a light has been shed on the creative process. Somehow, without anyone pinpointing as to why, Ginsberg’s motifs and motives become very clear and intuitive. The recital part of the film is equally as compelling; Franco’s balance of fervour, irony and pain as he reads out the poem make it a mesmerising watch.

The courtroom drama part was considerably weaker, but the fact that Jon Hamm was in it, doing his Don Draper shtick, was of a huge consolation to me : ) Still, as much as I hate saying this, his dashing ways seemed out of place when compared to James Franco’s much subtler performance. The witnesses’ testimonials as to whether the poem had any merit were quite interesting. Personally, I found the animated part of the film a bit lame; it looked like some extreme fan of the poem spent a sleepless night at his home computer trying to produce a digital homage to his beloved work.

The film was released in most of the world last year, it was in the official selection at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. I don’t know why it is only coming out now in the UK. I would recommend watching it if you are feeling rather mellow and cultural or if you are a fan of the Beatnik generation (I know I am not); or if you like James Franco and Jon Hamm (like I do), which is perhaps the lesser, but no less vital, reason for watching it.   

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