Howling for Free Speech

Howl -- Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Oscilloscope Pictures) -- 4 STARS

It is San Francisco, 1955. A dishevelled Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), stands before a smoke-filled bar. He lingers amidst the gentle clatter of wine-glasses and jazz before beginning the introductory lines of his most famous poem: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” A few minutes into Ginsberg’s reading, which is shot entirely in black and white, “angel-headed hipsters” appear on screen as a series of animated, distorted, naked figures gliding through city blocks made of books. They then fly through a grimly-colored city above fields of skulls and disfigured corpses.

After watching such scenes, one may find it difficult to define the genre of Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s “Howl.” Encapsulating the rise of the 1950s “Beat” counter culture, the film entwines a number of threads, including aesthetically-astounding animations that graphically narrate the readings; recreations of the hedonistic fervor of the Beat Generation and events of Ginsberg’s own tumultuous life; and a dramatically-imagined depiction of the titular poem’s obscenity trial in 1957. This consortium unleashes an astounding impression—fantastic and bizarre—yet the film is painfully reduced in the final few minutes to a cliched reassertment of the value of free speech.

The film’s overall structure is certainly unique. Epstein and Friedman depict not only events of Ginsberg’s life, but also graphically narrate the work. Throughout the film, colorful yet grotesque animations erupt across the screen, mirroring the controversial work’s explosive societal impact. Moving between animation, the first reading of “Howl,” the obscenity trial, and interviews with an older Ginsberg, the film does not follow a temporal linear progression. Rather it uses the reading of “Howl” to tell Ginsberg’s story. The contents of the work are employed as a framework for the narration of events in Ginsberg’s past and for the correlating stage of the trial. Thus the film successfully tells not only Ginsberg’s story, but also charts the influence of his work.

Every scene is directed and shot with a sympathetic subtlety and understanding of Ginsberg and his work. Moreover, Epstein and Friedman diligently adhere to historical events and interviews, which lends the film an invaluable sense of authenticity. Scenes in which Ginsberg narrates his own life are themselves the faithful re-creation of footage of the actual poet. Silent shots of Ginsberg lying in blissful contemplation on concrete steps are reproductions of famous photographs. Franco’s lazy, tonal voice and passionate portrayal of the San Francisco reading also genuinely capture Ginsberg’s disillusionment with the world and resilient optimism in the face of generational despair.

Scenes of the trial may constitute the thread which lets down this otherwise beautifully-crafted movie. The trial comically portrays the prosecution lawyer as a sexually-repressed victim of an uptight society incapable of recognizing the deep self-reflection and mourning in the work. Indeed one ‘renowned’ English Professor is unable to recall the name of the protagonist of “Howl,” despite his insistence that the text may trigger the psychological collapse of vulnerable members of the community because it references “balls.”

However in the closing scenes of the movie, the sequence becomes an overly dramatized vindication of free speech. The defence lawyer’s final words—although they would be empowering at the conclusion of an inspirational sports movie—twist the final moments into a magnanimous declaration of ‘What It is To Be American.’ At the conclusion of a film that has championed subtlety of gesture and imaginative creativity, this moralizing is somewhat disappointing.

But the film’s overall sense of disorientation nevertheless effectively un-moors the viewer from any preconceptions concerning the conventions to which all biographical films must adhere. In so doing, “Howl” offers three very different perspectives of Ginsberg: his hectic past, his older self after the poem has been written, and, symbolized in the mind-blowing animation, the imaginative consciousness that lurked behind his tortoise-rimmed glasses. Epstein and Friedman have not only successfully produced a sympathetic biography of Ginsberg, but have also blazed a work of comparable creative skill upon the screen.

—Staff writer Sarah L. Hopkinson can be reached at shopkinson@college.harvard.edu.

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