The poet who got the beat going
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 29, 2010
James Franco delivers an impressive, beguilingly sensitive performance as the poet and Beat Generation avatar Allen Ginsberg in "Howl," a part-biopic, part-interpretation of the title poem. Written in 1955, a few years before Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," Ginsberg's audacious, rhapsodically erotic answer to Walt Whitman would plant the flag for his literary peers who would help redefine American culture.
Ginsberg's poem would also be called obscene, and when the poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti published it, he was arrested. "Howl" mixes a number of story lines and aesthetic approaches: We get glimpses of Ginsberg's early days as a poet, including his relationships with Kerouac and Neal Cassady, as well as a depiction of the trial, where a parade of critics and professors pronounced Ginsberg's creation either a work of genius or irredeemable filth. (Mary-Louise Parker delivers a deliciously sniffy turn as a disapproving reader.)
Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman also include Ginsberg reading "Howl" at City Lights bookstore, which they choose to illustrate with Matisselike animations of figures soaring over the streets and Colorado highways of Ginsberg's burning imagination.
If those passages are a tad too obvious, "Howl" nonetheless builds into a quietly affecting portrait of a poet desperately trying to free himself from societal shame and familial constraints to find his own authentic voice. Franco gives generous, compassionate life to that struggle, but the high point of the movie is his deeply moving reading of "Howl" itself. As the camera pans Ginsberg's gobsmacked audience at City Lights, what could have been a trivial exercise in nostalgia instead becomes a powerful case for the cathartic power of art.
Contains profanity and sexuality.