★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, “Howl” explored Allen Ginsberg’s (James Franco) poem of the same name in three fronts: the public reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, the courtroom scenes in which a prosecutor (David Strathairn) wished to censor the poetry in question because of its obscene language, and an interview with Ginsberg in his home after his work had been published and gotten critical acclaim. Three of the strands were highlighted by freewheeling dream-like animation with excerpts of Ginsberg’s words heard in the background. I don’t have much passion for poetry but I found myself completely fascinated with this film because it bravely took the biopic formula upside down, inside out, and shuffled the familiar variables as if it was a deck of cards. The risks it took had great rewards because I thought it was refreshing without sacrificing insight and relevance to modern publications and aspiring writers. To be perfectly honest, if the film didn’t provide clues as to what Ginsberg could possibly be talking about or referencing to in his poem, I would have been at a loss as to how to nagivate myself through the barrage of images and words. But since the picture had elegantly constructed a bridge on how to possibly interpret the poem, I eventually found myself focusing on the rhythm and flow of Franco’s words, Franco’s odd but magnetic mannerisms, and the understated themes among the three strands. The poetry, like life, was about all things. It traced Ginsberg’s trauma of his mother being sent to a mental hospital and getting electroconvulsive therapy to no avail, the men he fell in love with, New York’s gargantuan buildings, its putrid scents and shrill sounds, as well as the homeless faceless faces as a source of his inspiration. He loved to talk about sexual acts and the more sensitive meanings behind giving a crucial part of oneself to another and how sometimes it could be a difficult and painful thing to do. I found “Howl” to be fully engrossing because it felt personal but was unafraid to embrace its experimental roots. The sudden color shifts felt exactly right because there was a big question, particularly in the courtroom scene, whether or not Ginsberg’s work would stand the test of time. The supporting actors’ performances, which included Jon Hamm (who gave an excellent delivery of the closing statement from the famous trial), Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, and Treat Williams, gave the material depth and meat that audiences could sink their teeth into. “Howl” was successful in asking and answering why counterculture is a necessary weapon against those who want to take away our rights. It made me want to learn more about its fascinating subject.