Monday, September 20, 2010
Reverend's Reviews: Howl Reveals Poetry of GLBT Liberation
I wasn’t very familiar with Allen Ginsberg's writings or with the 1957 obscenity trial over his best-known work, “Howl,” prior to seeing the fascinating new film inspired by them. Howl, the movie, is scheduled to open in Los Angeles and premiere on video-on-demand this Friday and expand to local theaters in October.
Howl is the first narrative film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the duo behind such award-winning, gay-themed documentaries as The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175 and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. Their latest production has already had the honor of being the Opening Night selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and Outfest, L.A.’s Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
The movie actually entails three distinct but overlapping storylines: the legal case against the publisher of Ginsberg’s poem, which contained then-graphic language and references to homosexual activity; a biography of Ginsberg himself that depicts his inseparable awakenings as a writer and a gay man; and a strikingly animated rendering of the infamous poem, which has come to be regarded as a literary classic.
The People vs. Ferlinghetti, as the obscenity trial over Ginsberg’s work was formally known, took place in the midst of the conformity-driven Eisenhower era. The case has been described as “one that involved as many literature professors as lawyers and put the power of words itself on trial.” The presiding judge ultimately decided in favor of Ferlinghetti, but not before reports from the trial had exposed many mainstream Americans to the “F” word and the mechanics of gay sex. Even today, some radio stations refuse to air readings of “Howl” due to their fear of violating FCC obscenity rules.
The all-star supporting cast of Howl primarily appears during the trial segments. Oscar nominee David Straithairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) plays the frequently flummoxed prosecuting attorney, Ralph McIntosh. Jon Hamm of TV’s Mad Men is Ferlinghetti’s lawyer, Jake Ehrlich, who is said to have inspired Raymond Burr’s iconic performance as Perry Mason. Bob Balaban is great as the conservative yet clear-eyed and thoughtful Judge Clayton Horn (who could well have been a role model for current Federal Judge Vaughn Walker, who recently overturned Proposition 8) and Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Alessandro Nivola briefly portray various witnesses.
While Epstein and Friedman’s recreation of the trial is illuminating and riveting, it is Ginsberg’s personal story that gives the movie its heart. James Franco of the Spider-Man series and Milk gives an excellent performance as Ginsberg. The revolutionary writer became renowned as one of the fathers of the Beat Generation along with Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and others, most of whom were gay or bisexual. Ginsberg, who passed away in 1997 (his longtime partner, Peter Orlovsky, just died earlier this year), wasn’t exactly known for his looks. As a result, the photogenic Franco has been criticized in the role by some. This is unfair, especially since the film depicts Ginsberg’s younger years, and Franco otherwise nails the poet’s distinct worldview, vocal cadence and passion.
Ginsberg is also regarded as a champion of sexual and political liberation for his honesty and willingness to convey the homosexual experience in “Howl” and many of his other poems. Eric Drooker, who had collaborated with Ginsberg on an illustrated version of his poems, drew the animated adaptation of “Howl” that serves as the third aspect of the current movie. The style is similar to the acclaimed 2008 feature Waltz with Bashir, a stylized animated account of dark historical events.
As guitarist Lenny Kaye said of Ginsberg, “He made us see that poets were pop stars.” He also helped to usher in the modern era of GLBT liberation and equality through his writing. Howl serves as a fitting tribute in addition to being inspiring cinema.
Reverend's Rating: B
UPDATE: Howl is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.