Sunday, 3 November 2013


Howl – Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – The film uses Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem ‘Howl’ as the backbone to this ambitious, interesting and often flawed project.  The film moves between the trial for obscenity (that brought so much notoriety and subsequent publicity to the poem), an interview with a young Ginsberg ruminating on his poetry and life, a black and white poetry reading in which ‘Howl’ is read and sequences of animation illustrating the nightmarish dreamscape of the poem. On the very basis of such an undertaking, the film should receive certain praise for the courage required to place a poem at the centre of a film essentially devoid of narrative.

James Franco’s performance as a young Ginsberg is a sharply observed and confident portrayal. However, the film’s multi-faceted nature becomes an unsatisfactory compensation for the more thoroughly committed attention and structure such a subject deserves. Although the animation uses Eric Drooker’s style (he was onboard as the main animation designer and storyboard artist), thus bringing to life his and Allen’s published collaboration in the Illuminated Poems, it somehow dates the poem with a clumsy visual vocabulary. ‘Howl’ is by no means a poem of subtlety or delicate suggestion, it is an apocalyptic incantation of disillusionment, fear, madness and the search for spiritual liberation…that, and ‘endless balls’. To read ‘Howl’ now still offers the reader a visceral journey of rhythmic and raw exploration-the animation feels surplus to requirements. While they are intriguing works of art, and there is no doubt regarding Eric Drooker’s faithful and talented imagining of Ginsberg’s words, in this film they become a labored tautology. The power of the poem to speak for itself is fatally overlooked, leaving the film crammed with needless sentimental prompts to assure us of the poem’s strength. For instance, do we really need so many close up shots of the crowd reacting to Ginsberg’s reading? An embarrassing array of over earnest nods, and knowing smiles greets the reading like a crowd of bohemian disciples- which, in the film, has the patronizing effect of over insisting the poem’s authentic and emotive force. The interview format, through which we learn about Ginsberg’s methods and general life views, also substitutes what could have been made implicit and perhaps more compelling in drama for explicit conversational directness. Having said that, Franco manages to salvage moments of believable intimacy, in what is otherwise an occasionally cringe worthy couch confessional.

One of the film’s genuinely brilliant decisions arrives at the very end, in which a montage of photos and historical facts is overlaid with a mournful recording of Ginsberg’s ‘Father Death Blues’. The film then ends with the actual footage of Ginsberg’s performance:  bristling grey beard and transfixed brown eyes, staring from under heavy glasses. In this shot, taken from footage available on YouTube, the unadulterated power of poetry and Ginsberg is felt. Its emotional force resides not in cinematic elaboration, inspired editing, or the drama of public reception, but in the simplicity of the voice and the poet: unafraid to speak with honesty about the personal, be it painful or joyful. 6/10
An extract from ‘Howl’…Had to be done:

‘who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open full of steam-heat and opium,

who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion,

who ate the lamb stew of the imagination or digested the crab at the muddy bottom of the rivers of the Bowery,

who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music,

who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge, and rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts, who coughed on the sixth floor of Harlem crowned with flame under the tubercular sky surrounded by orange crates of theology,

who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish,

who cooked rotten animals lung heart feet tail borsht & tortillas dreaming of the pure vegetable kingdom,

who plunged themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg,

who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for an Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade,

who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried,

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer,

who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whiskey and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steamwhistles,

who barreled down the highways of the past journeying to each other's hotrod-Golgotha jail-solitude watch Birmingham jazz incarnation,

who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity’

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