“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” (Howl, Allen Ginsberg). Over fifty years ago, Allen Ginsberg penned one of the most controversial poems to date, sympathizing with the up-and-coming “beat” generation, beginning an extensive battle against literary censorship, and marking the start for some of most relevant societal years in American history: the 60s and 70s.
Recently released to DVD, comes the film, Howl, created by Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman. The film stars James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, John Hamm as Defense Attorney Jake Ehrlich, and Jeff Daniels as Professor David Kirk, an angered scholar in fear of the poem’s eccentricities. Howl takes the form of a mockumentary, that is to say it tells the story of Allen Ginsberg’s years with a fictionalized tale utilizing famous actors. With a riveting performance from Franco as one of the “beat godfathers”, Ginsberg, and very intriguing animated sequences that symbolize the meaning of the famous poem as it is read by Franco throughout the film, Howl is truly an amazing accomplishment that seemed to slide under the radar, as it hasn’t been nominated for many awards. The New York Times stated, “It takes a familiar, celebrated piece of writing and makes it come alive.” Newsweek reviewed the film to have “poetry in its soul… a refreshingly wild tribute to Ginsberg’s art.”
Howl can be described in three main parts: the poet reading his poem over top of animated sequences, a reconstruction of the poem’s censorship trial, and a recorded interview with a slightly older Ginsberg in his San Francisco apartment. The meat of the film is easily the animated sequences that show Epstein’s interpretation of the poem’s meaning, seemingly following a lanky man in a harrowing struggle against capitalism and the awkwardness often accredited to human mortality. In Ginsberg’s terms, “it’s a Whitman-esque rant for the present generation”. The trial sequences feature John Hamm, with a stunning performance as well, as angered and exhausted Defense Attorney Jake Ehrlich who fights against the legal prowess of a “proper” older generation. Toward the end of the film, Jeff Daniels steps up to the stand to give his awaited opinions on Ginsberg’s Howl. Taking the position that Howl isn’t “literature” and shouldn’t even be considered thus, DA Ehrlich makes a fool of his rantings with careful inclusion of the freedoms this country was built on.
Needless to say, Ginsberg is acquitted of all censorship charges and his poem remains a staple in classes all over the country to this day. I feel that, Howl the film, respects and honors, Howl the poem. Its great acting is supported by a powerful, piano-driven score by Carter Burwell. With ease, both Howls should appeal to this generation of career-bound students and affirm a love and appreciation for the Arts, as well as a forever-long, burning desire to question the boundaries of censorship.