Film Review: Howl excels in telling tale of Allen Ginsberg, despite pretention

Howl, a film depicting the story of famous American beat poet Allen Ginsberg, premiered on Oct. 22 at The Little Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

James Franco gives an emotionally stirring performance as Ginsberg, whose controversial poem was sent to trial for obscenity in 1957. The film is separated into four distinct perspectives: the courtroom trial, Ginsberg’s dramatic reading at a café, a recorded interview and an animated depiction of the poem.

The courtroom trial scene centers on Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is being charged with promoting obscenity. The dim-witted prosecution, pulling examples from the poem and asking professional critics whether “Howl” holds any literary merit, provides a valuable look at the lengths artists had to overcome to express themselves freely. The film explores the idea that each artists’ words are his own to choose and are vital to his expression.

Ginsberg’s dramatic reading is possibly the most clichéd part of the film, and this is essentially unavoidable. Everyone can visualize the beat generation, hipsters sitting in cafés nodding in agreement and approval of the poet’s words that are flowing with passion from paper to speech. The noteworthy element of this scene, though, is Franco’s stunning performance, capturing Ginsberg’s essence, voice and passion flawlessly.

The recorded interviews are possibly the most flawed aspect of the film. Ginsberg recounts memories of his personal life, his experiences with Jack Kerouac, a longtime friend and inspiration, and his life partner, Peter Orlovsky. Unfortunately, the film deprives the viewer of an in-depth look into Ginsberg’s extraordinary and experimental life, but does give a glimpse into select significant moments. Considering its 90-minute length, the directors of the film, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, could have spared some more time for reflection on Ginsberg’s life at large instead of concentrating exclusively on the 1950s.

The animated depiction of “Howl” is visually stimulating and provides an abstract portrayal of the poem in segments of animated anarchy. This graphic representation is very clearly a collection of personal interpretations made by the filmmakers, which can make these segments either completely entrancing or an irreparable disconnection; no one but the viewer can decide.

Howl, at its core, is a film about artistic integrity and the journey of the creative process. Ginsberg defined and inspired a generation of beat poetry, and the movie is inspirational and engaging, evoking emotions in viewers of all ages. It’s definitely a must-see for anyone who values and admires art in any form.