Last week, I watched Howl, the relatively new film with James Franco playing Allen Ginsberg in a quasi-documentary that mixes historical re-enactment with surreal animation a la Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The film focuses primarily on the 1957 obscenity trial, but covers the poem’s overall history well.
With a disjointed style that interspersed the obscenity trial, an mock interview with Ginsberg (acting as narrator in way), a reading of “Howl” (the poem), and scenes from Beats’ lives together, the film sort of required prior knowledge to be comprehensible. I enjoyed the movie, which was only about an hour-and-a-half long, but I know a lot of the stories about the Beats’ lives, so it made sense already and I basically knew what was going to happen. (My wife, who was watching it with me, was confused in places about what was going on and who people were.) I will add that James Franco did a bang-up job of Ginsberg, even getting his voice and accent right, but I didn’t like the portrayals of Kerouac and Cassady; they both lacked energy when compared to the real people. In terms of cinematography and visual style, Howl reminded me of Natural Born Killers and a little bit of the Bob Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There, too.
I would recommend the film to anybody with a fondness for the Beats. For everybody else, maybe you’ll enjoy it, I don’t know. Do be aware that some of the animation has sexual aspects, though I can’t imagine anybody who is interested in Allen Ginsberg having a problem with it.