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Movie Review: Howl

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Holy the frankness, holy the homosexual—my words, served Allen Ginsberg style. Howl the documentary film is unlike any I’ve ever seen. It is about a poem and its writer, created for those who love the writer and his words. The poem, some say, is really a play meant to be shared aloud always and Howl obliges. Yet it bares so much more about the creative process and the lack of confidence that often births the artist on his journey of self-discovery. Or in Ginsburg’s case the journey back from the crazy house that took his mother’s life.  

James Franco embodies Ginsberg the man, the beat poet. This film is about how a poem titled Howl pierced Ginsberg’s soul from his sacral center to the sky. Imagery from this Ginsberg mind and throughout the poem just blew me away.  So when he sings of his New York City as “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!”—we find more rapture from the royal vein.

The poem goes on trial in 1955 hot off the press. Ginsberg narrates the film as well as the poem and during that retelling he said that he shook the shackles off his tongue and wrote exactly what he felt about Kerouac because he thought the poem would never be published. It was not the sort of thing he wanted his father to read, case closed. He wrote it; it was published and rocked the world of literature. The dramatic lead of Howl, James Franco is having a very good year finding his way into two very good films: 127 Hours, with much critical acclaim, and Howl, which I hope does not go unnoticed by top critics.

Throughout the film Franco as Ginsberg reads from the gutter—words of his  uber-famous poem Howl, poem from the mind of a fanatic; reviled by the puritans of the day for polemical imagery, use of anatomical words and sex-act descriptions that shocked their silly world. All the words of the film were actually the spoken words of the subjects. The poem is read and interspersed with the trial in a San Francisco court that sought to ban the book as obscene and of no literary value. The trial (verdict in Ginsberg’s favor) and the animation of the poem are a woven tapestry that paints a quaint, doubting, natural homosexual of B&W 1955.

Ginsberg admits that was too shy, too virginal, to confess his feelings outright to Jack Kerouac so he wrote Howl for the unrequited love of his life. Allen learned later to kneel before many tall, lanky, blonde gods eventually falling in love with Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit) who was his partner until death at age 70 in 1996.

The final frames of the film are reserved for reciting more Howl. Franco as Ginsberg and then Ginsberg as Ginsberg waxes rabbinic and conjures up the image of a swaying holy man praising God with as many refrains of “the holy…” as the tongue will hold. For good measure the poem winds up even tighter and throws down a few more “holy, holy, holy” that fills a live audience with glee. Holy words which eventually close the poem and the film Howl.

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  • Very refreshing to get a poet’s perspective on this, rather than a movie critic’s.

    I saw the film at last year’s London Film Festival and was surprised by how effectively it gets into the creative mind. It also holds a mirror up to the repressive, narrow-minded era that Ginsberg was reacting against.

    Most films about poets seem to end up being about their tortured lives and premature deaths. This one should be applauded for taking a different approach, even though I really didn’t like the animation.

  • net

    You’re welcome. I will check out your list. I started life as a poet actually.


  • Nice review! Franco did justice to the work on which Howl was based and Ginsberg’s legacy. I thought it was the best movie of the year and gave it my #1 spot on my Top Ten list at my artist’s blog. Let me know what you think!