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Perhaps still the greatest single poem ever written, Howl by Allen Ginsberg is a free flowing surge of fantastic imagery and wordplay that also managed to wind up the pious authorities.
Littered with so-called obscenities and stunning imagery it could be argued that Howl is the first modern pop culture moment. Without the poem it’s difficult to see where Bob Dylan and a whole host of modern songwriters would have got their template from.
The film is written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and stars James Franco as Ginsberg. It explores the backdrop to Ginsberg’s life and loose confederation of fierce young friends and the Six Gallery debut of the poem in 1955 and the almost, inevitable following obscenity trial of San Francisco poet and City Lights Bookstore co-founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti who was the first person to publish “Howl” in Howl and Other Poems. in 1957.
With an overlapping stories of film techniques it managers to tell Ginsberg’s life building up to the poem, the mental illness of his mother and his bright perceptive mind thinking brightly and full of tumbling imagery against the backdrop of stuffy post war America. It reenacts a key interview with Ginsberg explaining why he wrote the poem and the October t955 debut performance of Howl at the Six Gallery Reading. An event where Ginsberg’s powerful reciting of the genius work in front of a packed house of leading lights of the beat generation like Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder is looked on as being the birth of the so called Beat Generation and by extension pop culture itself.
This recital is equal in power and influence to Elvis swinging his hips on American national TV soon after and is part of the waking up of the sexually and morally repressed nation.
The trial is almost hilarious with so called experts dragged into court as witnesses trying to decide if the poem is a valid work or not when all the authorities are terrified of is the allusions to the dread homosexuality. Oddly the censors are still with us (Louder than war is currently censored by the mobile phone company O2 who have barred mobile phone users from accessing the site unless they pay a small surcharge and prove they are over 18) Thankfully the years have treated the great work kindly and the reading is accompanied by a series of cartoons, which attempt to capture the intense, freewheeling vision of Ginsberg but of course fail because nothing can get close to the power of those eternal words.
The film is a timely reminder of the power of words and the sanctimonious, monolithic power of the establishment that believes its moral to keep the war machine well oiled but is terrified of art.
Overall the film captures the smoky intensity of the best young minds of a generation as they destroy themselves with a fierce idealism and artistic purity. Ginsberg himself is one of the survivors and is shown in the end just before his death in 1997 just as powerfully vibrant and creative and intelligent a real giant in American literature and perhaps the key leading light of the beat generation.