Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Howl": Visionary Film On Ginsberg's Breakthrough Poem

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.." So began Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" (1955-1956), which depicted artists and seekers alienated from the Cold War and conformity of America in the 1950s. The film "Howl" centers around the 1957 obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, another Beat poet, who published the poem under his City Lights Books. The very question of whether "Howl" was obscene and without redeeming social importance was indicative of the repressiveness of the times; ultimately, the legal decision ruled in favor of Ferlinghetti and the poem.

James Franco as Ginsberg does a masterful job in depicting the poet's rebellion against literary artifice and quest for openness as an artist and a gay man. The portrayal of Ginsberg's 1955 reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco captures the heralding of a counterculture that would receive full expression in the 1960s. Animated sequences provide a phantasmagorical depiction of the poem's characters wandering from coast to coast seeking illumination and resisting "Moloch," a malevolent ancient god symbolic of a society of "demonic industries" and "monstrous bombs." Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have made a visionary film centered around a 20th century breakthrough poem and poet.

Review dedicated to the memory of Hal Goldman (1954-2010), scholar of Beat literature and dear friend.

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