Down on Moloch
Howl, beatnik-era poetry biopic, not rated, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
IIn 1957, a landmark obscenity trial in a San Francisco court centered on whether to ban Howl — Allen Ginsberg’s beatnik saga of disaffected American youth seeking solace and redemption in drugs, sex, and prolonged stays in mental hospitals. The creation and performance of the poem and the subsequent trial are the subjects of this mind-bending movie by directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The pair directed The Celluloid Closet and The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, two documentaries about gay and lesbian history that contained some eye-opening information but were stylistically straightforward films.
Howl, by contrast, delights in making a visual spectacle of Ginsberg’s language, soaked as it is in paranoia and bebop jazz. New Yorker cartoonist Eric Drooker was tapped to design a series of animations that provide psychedelic backdrops to accompany Ginsberg’s verse, as voiced by actor James Franco. Ghostly figures wail in the city streets, typewriters explode into flames, and bikers ride their motorcycles on the rain-slicked mountain roads of the American West. At times, the illustrations can be a tad literal, but they largely serve to echo and amplify Ginsberg’s lyrics.
Critics have savaged the animations as a puerile distraction intended for an audience bored with spoken poetry. But that seems shortsighted. Music and music videos have been paired together for a good three decades now, enhancing each other without confusing audiences as to which is which. This film makes a great case for future illustrators to consider animating poetry.