Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Where & When: Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood, CA. October 2, 2010 4:30PM
It's hard to imagine that a book published today could be labeled obscene and that the author would have to defend his work in a court of law but it wasn't so long ago when that certainly could happen in this country. "Howl", the first narrative feature by noted documentary filmmakers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, explores the creation of the book of poetry written by Allen Ginsberg, played in the film by James Franco, that was deemed indecent.
The film is fragmented in to three distinct parts: One is of Ginsberg's first public performance of "Howl" in 1955 shot in black & white which is combined with a colorful, animated visualization of the poem during the reading.
The second is an interview Ginsberg is giving to an unseen reporter which he discusses his troubled childhood which included his mother being institutionalized, how fellow writer, Jack Kerouac was the inspiration for the writing of the poem and Ginsberg's philosophy of life, sex and love.
The final is the actual obscenity trial itself which was actually against Lawrence Feringhetti of the City Lights Bookstore who was the first to publish the book. Jon Hamm plays defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich and David Stratharin plays Ralph McIntosh, the prosecution.
It was admitted by many of the prosecution witnesses that they either didn't fully understand the poem or they came to their own interpretation of the ideas behind it but they all agreed that it had to be obscene because of a few choice words used and it had absolutely no literary value. While Mr. Ginsberg and the Beat Generation is a fascinating subject matter, the film, despite good intentions, great style and plenty of talented people involved, lacks a clear focus, significant energy and doesn't dig nearly enough to make this rise above a conventional biopic.
Mr. Franco gives his all in his performance and is quite believable as Ginsberg. Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels make cameo appearances playing the various experts in the field of literature who either defend or are against Mr. Ginsberg's book of poetry but despite their presence, the court room scenes are deadly dull.
I should admit that I am not at all a fan of poetry, since I tend to be more of a literal minded person and the addition of the animation didn't help me understand or explain the intention of Mr. Ginsberg. I think that is the basic problem for me with poetry is that the ideas really would only be clear or obvious to the writer. "Howl" brings long overdue attention to the work of Allen Ginsberg and shows us how far our society has come on our views on what is "art" and what is socially acceptable but unfortunately it doesn't work completely as an entertaining film.