Not rated, 90 minutes
"Howl": An offbeat, intriguing look at an unconventional artist
If you know anything about the late, noted beatnik poet and author Allen Ginsberg, you know that his work was anything but conventional and often pushed boundaries. "Howl" is the film about Ginsberg's 1955 provocative poetry work of the same name and the obscenity trial that it resulted in. Well-acted but fragmented, it's an unconventional but fascinating tale of a very unorthodox but gifted artist.
It's San Francisco in 1957, and an American masterpiece is put on trial. The film recounts this dark moment using three interwoven threads: the tumultuous life events that led a young Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) to find his true voice as an artist, society's reaction (the obscenity trial), and mind-expanding animation that echoes the startling originality of the poem itself. All three coalesce in a genre-bending hybrid that brilliantly captures a pivotal moment-the birth of a counterculture.
"Howl" is a mixture of several different elements: it's a nonlinear, unsentimental examination of Ginsberg's poem itself underscored with intermittent animation that helps bring it to life, a look at the obscenity trial that the controversial poem prompted, and a few brief biographical sketches of Ginsberg's life that inspired him to write "Howl." Some of it's fascinating, particularly of Ginsberg's background, but the brief film is uneven and redunant when it tries to blend the elements together.
Franco's star-making performance as Ginsberg is the highlight of the film, and his reading of the poem is both striking and original. The film's directors, Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of Harvey Milk" and "Common Threads: Stories of the Quilt") add some offbeat animation to help bring the poem life. It's a mixed bag, some of it works and some of it doesn't and becomes a little annoying by film's end. Also, it's a little redunant since Franco reads the poem twice, over the animation and then again later in front of an audience as Ginsberg.
Still, some of Ginsberg's background and experiences were fascinating, particularly his experiences with mental illness and his childhood. The last piece, the obsenity trial, is interesting but uninvolving. Jon Hamm ("Mad Men") and David Strathairn ("Temple Gradin") are the lawyers arguing the case, Bob Balaban the trial judge, while Jeff Daniels, Mary Louise-Parker and Treat Williams all cameo as witnesses who either help or hurt the case.
"Howl" is far from expansive but intriguing nonetheless, even if you know the outcome of the obscenity case. Stay over until the epilogue and you'll see real-life archival footage and photographs of Ginsberg.