Down on Moloch

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Casey Sanchez The New Mex­i­can

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.

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