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2nd March 2011

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Howl is something of an oddity to classify. Part biopic, part courtroom drama, part experimental animation, it becomes something of its own beast in the mixture of all three, all tied together by Allen Ginsberg’s titular, controversial poem.

The ubiquitous James Franco plays Ginsberg, both in talking head form in a fictional 1957 interview and in younger, black and white flashback form as he narrates various anecdotes from Ginsberg’s past that informed the creation of Howl. Though the set up is incredibly simple, Franco’s performance is instantly engaging. Just as Ginsberg unabashedly poured his innermost thoughts onto the page – the reason it was considered so shocking in the first place – so Franco shows a huge amount of charisma in portraying the man whose innate candidness is at once disarming and captivating.

Franco also narrates an impassioned reading of the poem set to some beautifully trippy animation that serves to illustrate and illuminate the prose itself in a haze of x-rated imagery. It’s here we really see what all the fuss is about in all its three-part beat epic glory – freewheeling tales of sex, drugs and jazz, overbearing metaphorical devil monsters, the hells endured in the insane asylum – all told from the most personal of perspectives with a knowing detachment, and enlivened with a riffing cadence to it all. This is the beat generation, this is the beginning of a movement, and to the uninitiated it is powerfully eye-opening. Delving too deeply into it would result in something too close to a literary analysis, but there’s a reason a film’s being made about it over fifty years later…

Then, despite acting heavyweights David Strathairn, Bob Balaban and (Don Draper himself) John Hamm, the courtroom sequences are the weakest of the three threads. Driving home the message of the God-given right to free expression, a compelling case is barely made for The People. Now, maybe this is how the trial actually went, using court transcripts as the filmmakers did, but Hamm’s lawyer, arguing on behalf of reason, easily cuts a swathe through the opposing arguments, immediately dismissing them as prudish and ridiculous. This may be easier to accept in today’s supposedly forward-thinking times, but it doesn’t make for the most compelling of dramas. While the Howl obscenity trial was a landmark case in its ruling of freedom of expression over censorship – of “the promotion of frankness in any situation” – that lack of drama fails to adequately illustrate its true significance, and the stirring monologues in its support come off as self-righteous. Not that they’re not delivered impeccably, of course.

Told in such a unique way, with charismatic performances all round and the crux of the film – the poem itself – delivered with such conviction, it’s a compelling study of a powerful work of literature. Cramming a term-full of English Lit lessons into 90-odd minutes, covering a reading of the prose itself and its visual representation, the inspirations for and explanations of the words therein, and the real-world impact of its time. Then, like now, it’s ultimately up to the audience to decide what it means to them, but Howl is a film worth shouting about.

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