Howl was written by Ginsberg in 1955, and published the following year. It’s a lengthy poem that chronicles many events of Ginsberg’s life and his outlook on society. The film shows various parts of Ginsberg’s life – early years and moments that influenced the poem, his reading of the poem in Six Gallery in San Fransisco, interviews during the trial, and the trial itself, interwoven with an animated interpretation of the poem -which added little to the film itself.
From a “vintage” perspective, that is enjoying it for its mid-century flair, there is little to see and enjoy (just because it stars Jon Hamm, don’t expect a 2 hour Mad Men fix). The film has very few locations, and the costuming is average. From a literature perspective, the film is be quite different. I read Howl a few years ago and personally thought little of it, not because of dislike for some of his language, but instead of a distaste for a somewhat pessimistic outlook on life. (although I do like the Footnote of the poem – the “Holy” mantra).
With that in mind, you may wonder why I would drag myself to a film about the poem – it was out of curiosity on multiple levels. First off, the film stars many actors I enjoy, such as James Franco (Ginsberg), David Strathairn (lawyer Ralph McIntosh) and Jon Hamm (lawyer Jake Ehrich). I had liked Franco since I saw him in 2001 where he portrayed James Dean in the TV movie, James Dean. His portrayal of Ginsberg is quite good, and moving to an extent. As for Strathairn, I love this man to a great extent, mainly because of LA Confidential and Good Night and Good Luck. But Strathairn’s talent was basically wasted in his tiny role that had no passionate lines to deliver, unlike Hamm’s role of Ehrich, who delivers quite a closing argument. Hamm, who was basically a no name until Mad Men came swaggering into people’s living rooms drinking, smoking and charming all the way. Here, Hamm continues to use his Don Draper, “I will make you agree with me” voice, yet we see that he as begun to crack his Don Draper shell, and hope to see a breakthrough soon, although I doubt it will be in The Town.
If you are a lover of beat poetry or poetry in general, you may find Howl to be an interesting experience, from an average film goer’s perspective, you may ask yourself, “What the hell am I watching?”, from a vintage lover’s perspective you may be disappointed, and from a Don Draper lover’s perspective, you may enjoy only the few moments Hamm is on screen, but the rest may dull you entirely.Like many a film, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and with it’s relatively small distribution, it’s sad that this film may slip under the award season radar, which would be a tragedy, since Franco’s performance is a very good one.