Genre: Experimental film/ Docu-drama
Running time: 90 mins
I'm not much of a reader, even though I wish I was. But I do know of Allen Ginsberg, and I know him because his poem “Howl” which still stands as a manifesto for the Beat Generation. It still overwhelms and numbs my senses every time I read it. And the 2010 film “Howl” is one that celebrates this stupendous articulation of Ginsberg's whirlwind of a life -- a whirlwind that blew away ideas of social constructs, love, sanity and acceptance in its wake.
“Howl” is an experimental film -- written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman -- that primarily focuses on the infamous 1957 obscenity trial of the poem, and the life and times of the poet. Based on the archived documentations of the trial and interviews of Ginsberg, this film delves into his struggles with his confused and suppressed sexuality and his subsequent institutionalisation. Reenacted interviews of the poet, played by James Franco with palpable sincerity and respect, expose the viewer to his thoughts and views on writing, literature, poetry, and most importantly, society's definitions of right and wrong. Further emphasis on social perceptions and the need for liberalities from these preconceived ideas comes across through scenes of the obscenity trial.
The experimentation is what makes this docu-drama so intriguing. Coloured scenes of the trials and the interviews -- the present of the movie -- are juxtaposed with black and white scenes of the poet's life, as imagined from his own words from the interviews. And ingrained throughout the film is Franco's recitation of “Howl” and the re-enactment of the poem's debut at the Six Gallery reading, made more visually stimulating with the help of animated interpretations of the poem. Ginsberg's story builds with the poem, climbing the crescendo of his life with the final hearing of the trial that made “Howl” a legend in the world of literature reviews. The film holds onto the poignancy of the post WWII era and builds an ambience that pulls the viewer into history. The experimentation never strays far away from the viewer's comfort zone visually, because I assume that the filmmakers understood that the ideas and central themes of the film are heavy and occupying enough, and too much visual experimentation would be off-putting.
Reasons to love this movie are many for me. Ginsberg takes centre stage here as he speaks of his insecurities, fears and his passion for finding expression in words -- themes that will perhaps still resonate with artists in this day and age. This movie is unafraid of critically dissecting “Howl”, something that is tempting to a fan of the poem and someone who is fascinated by the poet's life. But it could also be the reason why the movie didn't create waves commercially. What is fascinating to a literary enthusiast, in this movie, may seem like academic jargon to the general audience at times. And it's a shame because it delves into matters of art that artists might wish for their general audience to understand better. Some might say that the surreal, imaginative animation can 'lighten' up the movie for those viewers, but I disagree. Franco's accompanying recitation of the poem makes the experience overpowering because nothing about the poem is 'light'. This film seems to have been made for the minority that already cares, and not to generate newfound interest in the majority that doesn't.
If you're in that minority, you should be watching this.