What makes a word, a phrase, or an entire work obscene to one person, may not apply to another. We all have different barriers at which we regard something vulgar and lacking proper taste. As we see in Howl, a film about Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) and his poem of the same name, in America every person has a right to determine for themselves what is obscene and what is tolerable.


Howl has four equally important and inspiring parts that move together forming a wonderful homage to the inspiring poem. First, the past (1955) is shown in black and white following Ginsberg’s travels that make up the poem’s content. Second, is the animated (somewhat) literal portrayal of the poem’s words and their connotations to Ginsberg’s view of the world around him. Third is an interview, in the present (1957), with Ginsberg discussing his thought process for each part of the poem. Lastly, we see snippets of the trial, occurring in 1957, being carried out to determine whether Howl contained any literary merit and if it should be deemed obscene and henceforth not be published.

Going into this viewing I had no previous knowledge of the poem, trial, or even Allen Ginsberg. Thankfully, there are some minor informative graphics displayed in the beginning to make sure everyone is on the same page.  From there, the audience is rushed into an artistic piece that, initially, is mildly pretentious, but grows in splendor and reverence as the poem is being read (wonderfully by Franco) and Ginsberg’s story is being told.

Throughout, our opinion is geared partially due to the shape and structure of the film, and partially due to the fact that we live in a more liberal time than the late 1950’s. David Strathairn portrays the scattered fervor of those favoring censorship of the poem as the prosecutor. This unorganized, and illogical, message is contrasted by Jon Hamm’s calm, unafraid demeanor as the defense attorney (note: Ginsberg is not on trial, the publisher is). Apart from Strathairn and a few key witnesses, a view of the opposition is not provided, further reinforcing our support for Ginsberg’s poem to be released to the masses.

Throughout, Franco reads the poem in its entirety, giving the audience a chance to hear the piece causing the controversy. Be forewarned, there actually is graphic content in the poem (even for modern times, it is not just 1950’s graphic), and the visualizations of said content are not dulled down at all. Due to Ginsberg’s homosexuality, there are a lot of homoerotic images displayed during the animated sequences, but these are performed in the most tasteful ways possible. After a short period, it becomes clear that director/writers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, are not trying to simply make an artistic film. They are creating a reverent tribute that attempts to match the beauty and emotions of the poem. An excellent job is done pinpointing the moments in Ginsberg’s life that had the biggest impact on the poem’s creation, such as his time in a mental institution, relationship with Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), and other meaningful relationships. We are also given explanations of the more metaphoric moments in the poem, which is nice considering not everyone is a literary expert.

Howl is not a film to simply watch and ignore. To fully appreciate the invoking of emotions, and rising, almost, pride in the poem as a viewer, one must be in that state of mind where the desire to learn and care about a generally unmentioned moment in the past overtakes the desire to watch a mindlessly entertaining film. Many will find Howl boring at first, but stick with it and you will find a movie that will occupy your thoughts for a while.

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