Directors: Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn
"You can't turn poetry into prose." That's what said of attempts to censor and rewrite Allen Ginsberg's Howl upon its publication. 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 it's label as Literature. No prizes for guessing who wins that argument.
It's a strange structure, this, 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 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 out loud. Monologuing in monochrome to a friend or a typewriter, he divulges his thoughts about his life, his writing, his hidden homosexuality. It's essentially a 90 minute poetry reading, for better or for worse.
A curious fusion of content and form, Howl is art that will alienate many. But as the stanzas stream past with a surreal animation over the top, this flight of subconscious fancy pleases your eyes as well as your ears. A personal 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 a 90-minute poetry reading, for better or for worse - mostly for the better.