Howl (review)

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Rage Against the Machine

This is some seriously, wonderfully fucked-up animation right here. Howl isn’t entirely animated, of course, but a big lovely chunk of documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s passionate ode to Allen Ginsberg and his angry ode to nonconformity is taken up by Eric Drooker’s livid, terrifying in-motion illustrations set to the famous poem about inarticulate fear and the pressure to fit in and the magnificent, daunting freedom that comes when we stop giving a shit. Drooker’s conception of The City as a monster and a god is unforgettable, and a glorious tribute to Ginsberg’s rage.
(The animation is based on Drooker’s graphic-novel adaptation of “Howl” [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], created with Ginsberg’s approval before his death. So it’s the closest we’ll ever get to getting Ginsberg’s visual perspective on his writing.)

Another third of the film is given oven to a dramatization of the 1957 trial in San Francisco in which bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) was forced to defend himself against charges of obscenity for selling copies of “Howl,” which makes not-at-all overt references to oral and anal sex, homosexuality, amongst other things that put fear in the hearts of those afraid of any experience outside their own. Here, Jon Hamm’s (The Town, The A-Team) snidely smart defense attorney bumps up against the likes of Mary-Louise Parker’s (Solitary Man, The Spiderwick Chronicles) radio scold and societal nanny — she insists that “Howl” has “no merit” — and Treat Williams’ (Hollywood Ending) literary critic, who won’t concede, no matter how desperately prosecutor David Strathairn (The Uninvited, The Bourne Ultimatum) tries to get him to do so, that poetry can be translated into prose. (Other choice cameos in the courtroom segment include Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola, and Bob Balaban; this is the kind of film that real actor-artists are willing to work for peanuts to be a part of. I especially love the irony of Daniels’ [State of Play, Traitor] insistence that his sanitized, indifferent criticism is “objective”; it’s exactly the sort of empty intellectualism “Howl,” in part, seethes about.)

The final third consists of a partly fictionalized reconstruction of an actual lengthy interview with Ginsberg by an offscreen journalist at some unspecified time in, it seems, the early 60s. James Franco (Eat Pray Love, Date Night) portrays the poet here, as well as in a flashback aside to the now infamous first public reading of “Howl” in October 1955 (almost exactly 55 years ago — wow); Franco also narrates the poem over the animated sequences. Not that the rest of the film isn’t entirely electric, but Franco’s elucidation of the writer is soaring in its warmth and sincerity. The words are (mostly) Ginsberg’s, from that now-decades-old interview, but the vitality and the passion are all Franco’s: he makes the poet breathe for us today in a way that feels entirely modern and relevant.

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