James Franco gives a career-defining performance as the young Allen Ginsberg-poet, counter-culture adventurer, and chronicler of the Beat Generation-in Howl, the audacious film from Academy Award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
Franco as Ginsberg recounts the road trips, love affairs, and search for personal liberation that led to the most timeless, electrifying, and controversial work of his career: Howl. Pushing the limits and challenging the mainstream, the passionate and provocative Howl and its publisher found themselves on trial for obscenity, with prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) setting out to have the book banned, while defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) fervently argues for freedom of speech and creative expression. The proceedings veer from the comically absurd to the passionate as a host of unusual witnesses (Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola) pit generation against generation and art against fear in front of conservative Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban).
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."
Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Some considered it obscene. Others saw it as a literary masterpiece. In 1957 the poem's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the legendary City Lights Bookstore, was brought to trial on obscenity charges. The literary arts and freedom of speech hung in the balance. These are the events depicted in the film 'Howl.'
The film covers the trial, taking its dialogue from the actual court transcripts. It's announced at the outset that every word in the movie was indeed uttered by a real person. 'Howl' follows a few different storylines. First, the court case, which pits defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) against public prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn). They argue over whether or not the poem has any literary merit. McIntosh tries to prove that nobody can even understand the poem, so why in the world do we need it? While Ehrlich argues free speech as a fundamental American right.
The movie cuts away to Ginsberg (James Franco) reading his poem aloud to a group of people in a cramped, smoke-filled room. He belts out the lines as the picture dissolves into an abstract animation that attempts to illustrate Ginsberg's words. It's quite the departure from the stuffy court room, and a welcome respite. The animation flies all over the place, producing images that you might not have thought about while reading Ginsberg's poem. This is just a few people's interpretations of Ginsberg's words, but it's interesting to see what they come up with.
That brings us to the third part, where Ginsberg sits in a small apartment as he's being interviewed. A recorder lies on the table while Ginsberg recounts some of his life stories, his relationship with Jack Kerouac, and the struggles he faced as a homosexual. Ginsberg recites lines from his poems, and explains that he at times composed lines through free association of words. Switch back to the court case as literary expert after literary expert is called in to explain what Ginsberg meant. It's funny to see the two scenes juxtaposed together. On one side you have Ginsberg simply describing his poem to the interviewer. On the other side you have so-called experts trying to voice much deeper, more abstract meanings from the poem.
The film clocks in at a brisk 84 minutes, but even then it seems much longer. The animated scenes, while bright and colorful, tend to wear on and on. The movie appears very disjointed, as it switches furiously back and forth between the trial, the animation, and the interview. It's hard to get emotionally attached to anything, as it all whizzes by at such a brisk pace.
Ginsberg's story is an fascinating one. His poem, while controversial, takes on a weird life of its own, and as Franco recites the lines it's hard not to become entranced by its rhythm and words. Even with all that, I still found 'Howl' hard to connect to. With its consistently bouncy nature of storytelling, it's hard to ever emotionally unite with anyone on screen. Franco gives a fantastic performance as Ginsberg, and shows us that he's really got some great acting chops (for further evidence, go see '127 Hours,' now). 'Howl,' should interest writers and students of literature, but in the end, is was just too scattered to keep me interested.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Howl' comes packaged with a DVD copy. It has also been packed in one of those cardboard, recyclable cases that slip into a slipcover. It's fine for those people who want to go green, but I can see the box and case that holds the disc wearing out fast. The discs only provide two slide-in holders inside a fold-out cardboard piece. This means every time you get the disc in and out it's sliding up against the holder.
'Howl' is presented in 1080p here. The movie uses a myriad of different looks, so each of them add to the overall appearance of the film.
The black and white scenes are tremendous, featuring great depth and wonderful shadow detail. The grays cover the entire spectrum of the scale. Those were perhaps, the best looking scenes of the movie. Fine detail is optimum here. Lines are sharp, and facial detail is top-notch.
The trial and the interview with Ginsberg look to have the same look and feel to them. Soft focus gives us a sense of the time period we're looking at. Colors are strong, but a little muted, as a fine haze settles over the picture, again adding to the look of that time period. Here detail isn't as great as it was in the black and white scenes, but some facial detail can still be made out. When the camera focuses on Jon Hamm for instance, you can make out much of his strong facial features, but his eyes are soft and devoid of any sort of really fine detail. This is mostly due to the aged look of the source material. Director's choice for sure.
Where the video fell apart for me was during the animated segments. Yes, they're vibrant pieces of art that burst off the screen with colorful clarity. Yes, the detail in them can be exceedingly rich at times. Where the animation really falls flat is in its banding issue. Banding is a constant nuisance here. As colors ebb and fade into one another, horrible banding lines appear far too frequently. Banding really is the only technical issue with this disc, but it's just brutal at times.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix can be summed up in one word: whimper. Boy is this thing quiet. I had to crank the main volume on my system just to hear what people were saying. Even then I couldn't hear a word that was uttered by the faceless person who was interviewing Ginsberg.
Soft dialogue isn't the only problem here. There's little to no sound coming from the rears, even during the fanciful animation sequences or during the crowded courtroom scenes. The soundstage stays front and center all the while, keeping a very hushed tone. Even when Franco delivers the lines of Ginsberg's poem with conviction and meaning, they're still hampered and muffled by the restrictions of this audio mix.
Directionality didn't work at all either. Like I said the interviewer is extremely hard to hear, but even his hushed whisper is coming through the center channel and not properly placed off screen in the other off-center channels.
LFE is pretty reserved here. There are a couple menacing sequences in the animation that give cause for some deep bass, but even then, like the rest of the track, the LFE produced is hardly anything to shout about.
Overall this is a disappointing and oddly, very quiet audio mix. Why it's so quiet I don't know, all I do know is that I had an extremely hard time hearing everything that was said, even with my volume cranked way up.
'Howl' is a fine film about Allen Ginsberg, but its structure consists of far too many off-shoots in such a short amount of time. James Franco delivers a great performance though, and based on that alone, I'd recommend this movie to anyone. Sadly, the video is below par when it comes to its irksome banding issues, and its audio is anything but nice. The special features are great for Ginsberg fans as they dive more deeply into the poet's life and friendships. I would recommend 'Howl' as a rental, because of the drawbacks of the disc, and because the movie really isn't something I could see anyone watching more than once.