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  Howl Letting It All Out
Year: 2010
Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Stars: James Franco, John Hamm, Bob Balaban, David Strathairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott, Aaron Tveit, Andrew Rogers, Heather Klar, Kaydence Frank
Genre: Animated, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: In 1955, poet Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) performed his work Howl in a nightclub for the first time little realising the significance it would take on, snowballing in controversy until the publishers who brought out the poem in book form were hauled into court on an obscenity charge. Ginsberg was not in the dock, but head of the small publishing company Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) was, though luckily for him he hired the best lawyer he could find, Jake Ehrlich to plead his case that this was a work of literary merit, and was not designed to corrupt...

The publication, never mind the writing, of Ginsberg's work was an important one in relaxing censorship and allowing important subjects which might otherwise be taboo to be discussed; see the Lady Chatterley's Lover case in the early sixties for the British equivalent. But this was different in that the work in question was contemporary, and there were many who welcomed its prosecution, seeing it as the thin end of the wedge and cause for moral alarm that anybody should have said such things in public, vocally or in print. For the film version of these events, experienced documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman applied a selection of styles.

Most strikingly was the animation which took up around half of the movie, all CGI and swooping around depictions of what the directors felt would bring out the themes of the poem, so there was lots of symbolism, sexually explicit caricatures (they were especially fond of massive erect penises thrusting towards the sky), drugs references, mental asylums and plenty of smoking for some reason. Whether you thought this was a faithful adaptation of the words or otherwise was very much in the eye of the beholder, as though you got Franco reading them out so you could judge for yourself what kind of poem Howl was, you may have preferred to simply read it yourself and allow your own mental imagery to be drawn.

It wasn't all saucy cartoons, of course, as this was as much a reconstruction of the court case as it was an examination of Ginsebrg's muse, and to that end Epstein and Friedman took the record of the actual events and used the transcript for the actor's dialogue, something which was surprisingly effective thanks to this serious milieu offering the film its obvious intent as intellectually and artistically sincere, weighty even. A selection of familiar faces brought this to life, with John Hamm as the defence, David Strathairn as the prosecution, Bob Balaban as the judge, and a few recognisables taking the stand, as all the while Franco recited an actual interview with Ginsberg to fill us in on where his thoughts were at at the time this was set.

Pausing briefly to marvel how quickly he went bald - see him behind Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back to be aghast at the progress of forehead versus receding hairline, as throughout this Franco sports the full barnet - it was evidently the implications of allowing a work like Howl to be freely available that concerned us. While its detractors saw it as the barbarians at the gates of decency and polite society, falling back on such excuses to have it banned that it used obscene language therefore it must be worthless, then when that didn't work accusing it of pretentiousness, the sort of criticism designed to throw up barriers to anybody's material being taken on the level intended. Whether you understood precisely what Ginsberg was getting at was beside the point, and the directors ensured we were clued in with extracts from his biography to clear up his points and subjects, it was whether anyone should be allowed to make up their own minds about such works which was important. You might not like Howl, but you couldn't deny it meant a lot to its creator. Music by Carter Burwell.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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