Howl appears at first to be one of those quirky indie films that are so popular at Cannes right now because their low budget makes them feel honest, or less commercialized so to speak. Regardless of what genre Howl fits in, I believe that it is honest, and more importantly rich in both wisdom and human rights.
Howl endeavors to express the trials and tribulations that poet Allen Ginsberg so innovatively wrote by visually representing his poem, “Howl,” while interweaving it through a trial centered on freedom of speech.
Shortly after the publication of the poem, Ginsberg’s publisher was sued for publishing a work that had the potential to corrupt its readers with its licentious and explicitly vulgar content, specifically with references made to homosexual lifestyles.
It was obviously apparent that even in the conservative, suburban ’50s, the defendant would win the case on the clear grounds of that first American right to freedom of speech.
Channeling Aaron Sorkin-type court dramas, David Straithairn (the Bourne series) plays a quibbling and uncomfortable prosecutor protesting for American ignorance. On the defendant’s side, Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) personifies America’s Bill of Rights, embodying freedom of speech and liberty.
With a host of cameos ranging from Mary Louise Parker to Jeff Daniels, the audience begins to understand the inherent question of the film: What qualifies as good art? This question poses several problems, mainly that one cannot set any limitations to or set any sort of guidelines on what qualifies as good art, including poetry.
In terms of relevance, I’d say that this conundrum is still teased out today.
However, the more important issue that the film portrayed very well was Ginsberg’s plight through living homosexually in a clearly heterosexual society.
Ginsberg, portrayed by the charming James Franco, cannot help but be attractive to me, a girl, despite his character’s sexual preferences. There’s no denying he’s a good-looking dude.
Yet his portrayal of Ginsberg was done flawlessly: a combination of conscientious idiosyncrasies and charismatic mannerisms one would identify with a homosexual artist in the ’50s.
What made the film so inspiring was more than just Franco’s interpretation on who Ginsberg was as a personality, but how they dealt with his subject matter in relation to that personality.
The film flashes from Ginsberg’s interview about the trial, in which he clearly shines as a brilliant mentor to any author or artist feeling discouraged in his work, to a younger Ginsberg reciting his poem to a young beatnik audience clearly moved by his electrifying and chaotic words. As he begins to read, the film shifts into a dream-like animation depicting those words in an illusionary form that is almost as incomprehensible as the actual poem itself.
The animation is a blend between computer-animated and hand drawings. To be fair, there is a definite theme to the visuals, and it clearly helps clarify the poetry. Despite its intrinsic insightful beauty, the animation was more than uncomfortable to watch.
The sheer magnitude of reproductive organs flashing across the screen was admittedly overwhelming, as well as the multiple graphic illustrations of sexual intercourse. Maybe I’m prude, but I just wasn’t quite prepared for that.
It is very difficult to understand any given word or phrase of the poem, even with the supplementary animation, but the meaning is quite clear. It expresses a human plight of freedom and liberation through an increasingly darkening and constricting world, among other issues.
This plight as an eternal struggle is what makes the film so relevant and so personal now. Despite the slightly awkward homosexual moments, mainly awkward because I wish I were the one making out with James Franco, Howl personifies, and actually proclaims to reach out to lost souls in an ever depressing world, and aims to touch those who are open to listen to its message.
Even if you are unfamiliar with homosexuality or poetry, Howl contains a relevant theme and message of freedom of speech and sexuality in a nation where those freedoms maintain to be questioned to this day.
BRITTANY PEARLMAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.