Wednesday, June 29, 2011


This review will probably one of the most difficult for me, as I had a hard time following the movie. Howl (2010) was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and stars James Franco (127 Hours), Jon Hamm (Mad Men, TheTown), Mary-Louise Parker (RED, Weeds), David Strathair (Bourne Ultimatum, Fracture), among others. Roughly speaking, it is about famous poem Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, and is presented in three simultaneous frames : Allen Ginsberg talking about his life and inspiration in an interview-like format, an illustrated animation of his poem while w voice over reads some parts, and the trial for obscenity.

I did not know anything about Allen Ginsberg, nor Jack Kerouac, nor the Beat Generation. So let me explain a little.

The term "Beat Generation" represents an entire period in time ; the core group consisted of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, NealCassady and William S. Burroughs, who met in New York City in the 40s. They subsequently met Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke before they all moved to San Francisco where they exapanded the group with Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch.
The expression "Beat Generation" was introduced by Jack Kerouac in 1948 and presented to the oublic when Kerouac's friend John ClellonHolmes wrote « This is the Beat Generation » for the New York Times.

Key elements of the Beat culture included drugs, sexual experiences, interest in Eastern religion, rejection of materialism, and idealization of exuberant means of expression.
Ginsberg's poem Howl contains lines about homosexual sex. William Burroughs' Naked Lunch focuses on drug use, but also contains sexual content. In addition, there are explicit descriptions of alternative sexual practices. Both works were prosecuted for obscenity. The trial for Howl is related in the movie. Victory in both cases marked the end of literary censorship in the US. The members of the Beat Generation have a reputation as bohemian hedonists who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. Most of them were either homosexual or bisexual, more or less openly. As Ginsberg describes his life, he is completely open about his sexuality.
In the movie, the story behind comes to life in three different ways. In a documentary-like interview, Ginsberg is talking about his life and experiences – there is lots to learn but after a while it becomes boring, because it is almost always the same filming angle, the same monotonous tone, it got me sleepy. That said, James Franco is just amazing, and shows yet again he is an acting chameleon. Just for that, it is worth watching.

The animations were creative enough to illustrate the poem, but going very fast, very colourful, and giving an impression of total chaos.  I seriously regretted the DVD did not feature subtitles, because that may have helped to keep my full attention.
I do not have much to say about the trial sequences, they were fairly classic, although I found the two actors Jon Hamm and David Strathairn lacked a bit of substance.
All in all, it goes back and forth, with flashbacks as Ginsberg talks about his life, so basically at some point I lost track of what was going on and, eventually, interest.
 All-in-all, I do not think it is a bad movie. It doesn’t even last this long, about 90 minutes more or less. I am even considering reading Howl so that I learn a bit more about that time, which I am assuming strongly inspired the Hippie Movement. Historically it is fascinating how a small movement can have such a great influence. I just think I lacked the openness to appreciate the movie, which is really much more like a documentary.
Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose   
- Allen Ginsberg

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