Howl,

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Vis­ual the­atrics aside, the film al­ter­nates be­tween court­room scenes and mo­ments when Franco chan­nels Gins­berg read­ing his poem in a dark, smoky café. The poet is ner­vous at first and then gains con­fi­dence and mo­men­tum as he laments the mem­bers of his gen­er­a­tion “who faded out in vast sor­did movies, were shifted in dreams, woke on a sud­den Man­hat­tan, and picked them­selves up out of base­ments hung over with heart­less Tokay and hor­rors of Third Av­enue iron dreams & stum­bled to un­em­ploy­ment of­fices.”

Some of the poem’s verses that speak frankly about ho­mo­sex­ual and het­ero­sex­ual love and sex seem barely con­tro­ver­sial in our more open­minded age. Yet they were of ut­most con­cern to peo­ple who had only re­cently seen the de­but of Play­boy and were more than a decade away from the Stonewall ri­ots. Af­ter Howl was seized by Amer­i­can cus­toms of­fi­cials, en route from a London printer, its pub­lisher, Lawrence Fer­linghetti of City Lights Books, was forced to stand trial and de­fend the lit­er­ary mer­its of the poem against charges that it was im­moral and ob­scene.

Based on the ac­tual court­room tran­scripts, these le­gal scenes are ren­dered with sur­pris­ing fi­nesse. It’s a rare cin­e­matic moment when lit­er­ary crit­ics and English pro­fes­sors take cen­ter stage in a ma­jor fea­ture film. Mary-Louise Parker (the pot-deal­ing pro­tag­o­nist of Show­time’s Weeds, among many other roles) has a lively turn on the wit­ness stand as an anti-ob­scen­ity crank. One of the best de­fenses of the poem comes from Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley, pro­fes­sor Mark Schorer (played by Treat Wil­liams). Schorer de­mol­ishes the ha­rangu­ing of the pros­e­cu­tion’s lawyer, who is baf­fled by Gins­berg’s racy lan­guage. “Sir,” Schorer says, “you can’t trans­late po­etry into prose. That’s why it is po­etry.”

The poem, how­ever, is in­tensely bi­o­graph­i­cal, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween de­scrip­tions of Carl Solomon, Gins­berg’s con­fi­dant and fel­low pa­tient at a New York psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in the late 1940s (re­ferred to as “Rock­land” in the poem), and Gins­berg’s pals and fel­low scribes Jack Ker­ouac and Neal Cas­sady. The film in­cludes some of Gins­berg’s ac­tual black-and-white snap­shots

The best mind of his gen­er­a­tion? James Franco

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