Review: 'Howl'

(Four stars)

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..." In the opening scene of "Howl," Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) is giving the historic first reading of his first published poem at San Francisco's Six Gallery. The year is 1955.

Though not everyone realized it, the poem's ripples were soon to be felt lapping at the conformity and repression of '50s life, opening up such issues as sexual (including homosexual) freedom and freedom of expression.

Legal repercussions were quick to follow. In 1957, City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) was tried for publishing the poem; the courtroom was to see such legal and literary celebrities as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), San Francisco Examiner critic Luther Nichols (Alessandro Nivola) and U.C. Berkeley English professor Mark Schorer (Treat Williams).

"What are 'angel-headed hipsters'?" the prosecutor (David Strathairn) asks in a line that is, like all the others in the "Howl" trial scene, taken straight out of the trial transcript.

Writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of Harvey Milk," "The Celluloid Closet") have shaped "Howl" from these two themes: Ginsberg's increasingly impassioned reading, and the summer-long trial. In addition, there are two others: an interview with Ginsberg (imaginary, but based on tapes) given years later, and a semi-surrealistic animation of "Howl," by Eric Drooker, who illustrated one edition of the poem. Those sequences work some of the time but other times seem more charming than revolutionary. Obviously, it isn't easy filming a poem.

In the interview, Ginsberg recounts his love affairs with Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) and Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), who was to become his lifelong companion. He also talks about his stint in the "loony bin," and another stint working in an advertising office, dating women, trying to become straight. It's hard to know which period Ginsberg found more agonizing.

The poet also discusses his creative process, his mother's mental illness and his cross-country travels, among other topics.

James Franco, though better-looking than Ginsberg was even as a young man, nails the poet's New Jersey accent and his idiosyncratic speech patterns. The minor roles are also well cast.

"Howl" combines an important slice of history with a piece of fine filmmaking.

Palo Alto Weekly film critic Peter Canavese also interviewed actor James Franco about "Howl" and his career. Read the profile by clicking the link below.

James Franco: A modern Renaissance man

Not rated. 2 hours, 16 minutes.

— Renata Polt

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