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Monday 08 November 2010

Film Review: Howl

Posted in: Movies
By Michael Stevens - 19th July 2010

Director: Rob Epstein
Year: 2009
Running time: 90 mins
Censor Rating: M – Content May Disturb
Festivals: Sundance, Berlin 2010

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg

It is so much easier to review a film or book that one dislikes. I loved Howl, from start to end.

The directors (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman) have been ambitious, placing a poem at the heart of the narrative: but what a poem! Allen Ginsberg's poem ‘Howl' radically shifted the ground for poetry at the time, and is still a central reference for a much wider cultural shift that it was part of, and here we are presented with a good story and a truly important piece of social and cultural history, laid out in a beautiful and engaging manner.

Three main strands weave through the film. A re-enactment of the obscenity trial where there was an attempt to have the poem banned, held in 1957, two years after Howl had been published; a recreation of an interview with Ginsberg while living in New York in the same year; and a beautifully re-telling of parts of the poem itself against the background of a vivid piece of animation.

James Franco, perhaps best known for his role as Harry Osborn in Spiderman, plays Ginsberg, a more physically beautiful Ginsberg than the real one for sure, but he plays him convincingly, especially as he is reading ‘Howl' and brings out the humour and joy that are in the poem.

The court case is at times hilarious, as po-faced literature experts are asked to explain the merit, or otherwise, of phrases such as “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists and screamed with joy, who blew and were blown by those human seraphim the sailors…”

Did I mention that Ginsberg was a homo? This is also a central thread, his personal road to understanding that it is ok to love men, and that it is good to say this out loud, that this will make it easier for others. Remember, this is in the latter half of the 1950s, in a deeply conformist America where any kind of sex was not talked about openly, let along the joys of getting fucked up the ass. And his love for his life partner, Peter Orlovsky, comes through as well, and is portrayed with a tenderness and joy that will warm your heart. Yes he writes about sex, but he writes about love as well – and this comes through in the film.

This film is worth seeing not just because of the gay bits, but because it's well-acted, it's well-written, it looks and feels good and they capture the attitudes of an era that has gone, that seems so alien to our own world today, but is really not all that far away in time.

- Michael Stevens

Howl is showing at the New Zealand International Film Festival,click here for more information

Michael Stevens - 19th July 2010

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