Howl, a film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, examines the circumstances surrounding the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem and the critical reaction to it. The film has been described by some as a cinematic form of literary criticism.

Much of the film is devoted to the obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), who published Howl. Equal attention is given to an interview that Ginsberg (James Franco) gave at the time of the trial. There is a re-enactment of the famous reading of the poem that Ginsberg gave in 1955 in San Francisco, and there are also scenes from Ginsberg’s early life. There are animated sequences that accompany the reading of the poem.

I found Franco convincing as Ginsberg. Overall, I thought the film was intelligently done, but, except for the some of the animation, I did not find it emotionally engaging. I think that this was due to the device of telling the story of Ginsberg’s life mostly through his interview. People who had a strong influence on Ginsberg (Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Carl Soloman) appear only in flashbacks, and we never hear them speak. (We never even hear Ferlinghetti speak during his trial). Ginsberg refers to his parents repeatedly (he feared his his father’s disapproval), but we don’t really learn much about them. Defenders of the film argue that it is meant as literary criticism, not as an attempt to fictionally portray Ginsberg’s life. Maybe so, but I prefer films that affect me on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.

One thing I can say for the film is that it did make me want to read more of Ginsberg’s writing.

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