He wore horn-rimmed eye glasses. When he performed in public he was outfitted in a jacket and tie. He was so normal looking for the 1950s he could easily be lost in the crowd–yet he was one of the most revolutionary artists in American history, the man who was the bard of the Beat Generation. This was Allen Ginsberg, who at age 27, wrote his masterpiece poem “Howl.”
He didn’t want his work to be published for fear Dad would find out his was a homosexual. When it was published, it provoked the most important pornography trial in the nation’s history.
Howl, the movie, brilliantly tells the story of Ginsberg, the creation of his poem, and the famous trial it provoked. In a totally masterful accomplishment, it weaves the three story lines together, using different film techniques, including drama, animation and interview recreated from actual transcripts. It moves back and forth in time, dances in the imagination with surreal animation, and moves seamlessly from courtroom testimony to poetry recitations. On paper, such a complex project had to look overwhelming. But the resulting film is seamless and hypnotically simple. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in years.
Ginsberg is played, in a perfect performance, by James Franco. He’s full of child-like wonder one minute, ageless wisdom the next. He’s the lovesick young man having crushes on charismatic straight men, such as Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) and Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), both Beat legends. Then he is happy with his beloved life-long partner, Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tivett). Franco so captures the essence of the man in his distinct body language and speech patterns that you forget you’re watching an actor, but think you’re really seeing the great poet himself. Franco was terrific in Milk and 127 Hours but I think Howl is his greatest performance.
The young Ginsberg is the author of these tumultuous opening lines,
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.
When he’s not writing he can admit, “Sometimes I feel in command when I’m writing, when I’m in the heat of some truthful tears…other times, most of the time — not.”
To enhance the poem, filmmakers Bob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman created clips of wild surreal animation reminiscent of William Blake, much of it homoerotic, full of celestial creatures and a horrifying monster named Molok..
The other part of the movie, interwoven beautifully, is the trial in which Howl’s publisher, the poet Lawrence Ferlingetti (who never says any thing) is charged with pornography. Defending him is his low-key attorney (John Hamm)
Leading the trial is the impassioned prosecuting attorney (David Stratharn). Several fine actors make convincing cameos, including Mary Louse Parker as an indignant critic of the poem, Jeff Daniels, an icy academic ,and Treat Williams who loves the poem but can’t find the words to describe it. Bob Balaban plays the judge, who is befuddled most of the time by the opposing arguments and then exercises wisdom to declare a decision that will make publishing history.