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Howl Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Monday, 21 February 2011 11:15
Directors: Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn
Certificate: 15

"You can't turn poetry into prose." That's what is said of attempts to censor and rewrite Allen Ginsberg's Howl upon its publication in 1956. But that hasn't stopped Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman adapting it into a movie. Taking on the controversy surrounding Howl's lewd content, they follow a court case debating the legitimacy of its label as Literature. No prizes for guessing who wins that argument.

It boasts a strange structure, cutting between the courtroom discussion and shots of Ginsberg (Franco) performing his poem to audiences across America. Against a stream of witnesses and experts (including Jeff Daniels), Howl unravels as a graphic and gripping piece.

A four-part beat poem tackling the decrepit state of society, it's full of c-words and f-words and clean words and bad words. And James Franco laps up the chance to recite them all out loud. Monologuing in monochrome to a friend (or the nearest typewriter), he divulges his thoughts about life, writing and his hidden homosexuality. It's basically an 80 minute poetry reading, for better or for worse.

A curious fusion of content and form, Howl will alienate some. But as the stanzas stream past with a surreal animation over the top, this flight of subconscious fancy will please your eyes as well as your ears. A project with supporting actors (like Jon Hamm and David Strathairn) clearly committed to its purpose, this is film for art's sake. You can't turn poetry into prose. But you can turn it into good cinema.


Pretty and pretentious, Howl is an 80 minute poetry reading, for better or for worse - mostly for the better.


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  • allen ginsberg
  • david strathairn
  • howl
  • james franco
  • jeff daniels
  • jeffrey friedman
  • jon hamm
  • robert epstein