James Franco Stars as Allen Ginsberg in Howl
January 29, 2010
By Charles Donelan
Sundance 2010 got off to a memorable and controversial start with
Howl, a docudrama with animation about the life and times of a famous
poem. Directors Epstein and Friedman come from documentary, and
that's what they thought they were making when this project got its
start at the Sundance lab six years ago. What they have ended up with
is something morean homage to a great work of literature that
manages to telescope several layers of cultural history into a single
and glorious blast of words and images.
"Howl" the poem was born as a recitation at the Six Gallery in San
Francisco's Marina in October of 1955. It went on to become the
best-selling title on the list of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights
press, and to establish the self-revelatory ethos of a generation of
liberated souls and counter-cultural artists. Based in part on
Ginsberg's experience with the state department of mental health in
New York, "Howl" is dedicated to Carl Solomon, a fellow mental
patient, and describes America in the 1950s as place bent on
destroying its most sensitive, intelligent and creative citizens.
It's central image of a many-windowed Moloch demanding human
sacrifice came from a vision Ginsberg had of the hotels of San
Francisco while tripping on peyote, and implies that the mainstream
culture eats its young, a message that would prove prophetic to the
next generation of Americans, the children of the 1960s who would
canonize this, the greatest work of American protest literature,
making "Howl" the counter-culture's own Declaration of Independence.
No story of counter-cultural publication would be complete without an
obscenity trial, and San Francisco obliged with a spectacular one,
complete with a happy ending that set the most influential precedent
for First Amendment law regarding literature since the Ulysses
decision. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that, because of
Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and "Howl," America slipped the yoke of
literary censorship for the next 50 years.
All this preliminary information about "Howl" is necessary to a
discussion of the film because the directors have chosen to leave so
much of it implied in their spare, unrelenting, and grandly emphatic
recreation of the poem's elemental rhetorical force. Franco carries
the film with his subtle, jazz-influenced evocation of Ginsberg, but
perhaps the most moving speech comes out of Bob Balaban's mouth, in
the role of Judge Clayton W. Horn, the man who found that the "Howl"
was protected under the First Amendment. This is a great film for any
number of reasons, and deserves to be seen by a wide audience.
Congratulations to the filmmakers and to Sundance for their
continuing commitment to challenging programming.