Howl review

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<i>Howl</i> review

Writer/Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Cinematographer: Edward Lachman
Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn
Studio: Oscilloscope Pictures

If there’s one thing that characterizes a howl, it’s a sense of focus. It’s a sustained, dedicated outburst of emotion that Allen Ginsberg captured so well in his now iconic 1955 poem. The just-released film _Howl _explores many of the same themes of restraint and expression that carried the poem, but it does so in a more sporadic and less connected way. What ends up on the screen turns out to be more a collection of inspired yells rather than a single, connected, overpowering cry.

Howl, which stars a predictably intense James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, is like a beat generation sampler platter. It’s framed by both re-created scenes of the 1957 obscenity trial concerning the poem and by a fictional conversation between Ginsberg and an unseen journalist about the more intimate moments of the poet’s life. In addition, the film also recreates one of Ginsberg’s live performances, and even illustrates the poem itself in a floating, psychedelic alternate universe.

Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, who wrote and directed the film, said they were inspired by the various sections of the poem itself in their decision to break up the film. Indeed, the flashbacks, flash-forwards, black-and-white moments and cartoon interludes all give Howl a sense of experimentation and self-awareness that Ginsberg shared. The wide-ranging plot illustrates a few themes especially well, such as gay life in the ‘50s and artistic confusion. But it’s hard to completely abandon yourself to any kind of wail when you’re constantly trying to figure out what to say. Howl inevitably ends up being impressively imaginative but somewhat incoherent.