|Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) in Howl.|
By John Esther
Back in 1997 during his last year alive, I had the great fortune to spend some time with the astounding American poet, Allen Ginsberg.
Among the many things Ginsberg imparted on me was that the worst thing in the world is for people to deliberately ignore one’s existence, especially when it comes to the poor.
“When some street person asks you for money and you don’t want to give it,” said Ginsberg, “at least acknowledge they exist. Don’t just ignore them.”
Since then I have tried to follow Ginsberg’s advice. After watching Howl, I remember why.
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl looks at Ginsberg, circa age 29, and the influence his magnum opus and first published poem, Howl, had on America during the mid-1950s.
In some ways a poetic equivalent of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (the artist’s first work for public consumption was his best), Ginsberg’s Howl defined a country hell bent on making every unhappy face smile as they ignored and perpetuated the misery around and behind him and her.
Rather than tell a straightforward biopic, Howl, which was an opening night film at Sundance Film Festival 2010, is essentially divided into four equal parts using four different mediums/tropes to convey the power the poet and his poem had on the people and the powers-that-be.
One part is essentially theater, with Ginsberg (a marvelous James Franco) reading his poem at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, to an enthusiastic crowd, including the writers/future “absent lovers,” Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Presscott). The second part uses animation (designed by Eric Dooker) to illustrate the meanings/feelings of the poem -- at least one accurate interpretation thereof. The third part is the dramatic poetic justice of Howl, and thus free speech, on trial for obscenity (People vs. Ferlinghetti). And the fourth part is a pseudo documentary where Ginsberg answers questions to an off-screen interviewee.
Highlighted by Edward Lachman’s magnificent direction of photography, Howl intermingles these four sets to brilliant heights.
While the poem Howl said so many things about America and Howl the film says so much about America then and now, the greatness in this film lies in the fact that the filmmakers managed to capture both Ginsberg and Howl at its vital essence: the voice of desire and fulfillment of communication and acknowledgement by and for those who have been ignored by society at large through malice, ignorance or indifference.
Without a significant flaw in sight after two viewings, I will be very surprised if Howl is not one of the 10 best films of the year.