Marshall Fine admires Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl (Oscilloscope, 9.24) , which "is about many more things than just a poem," he writes. "But if you boil it down to its essence, it's a movie about a poet and his creation - about the writing and transmission of a work of poetry. And unlike last year's overrated Bright Star, this one is actually interesting.
"Howl was originally meant to be a documentary. But the writer-directors (who also did The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet) decided instead to create an impressionistic movie about a transcendent and transitional moment in popular culture: the writing and publication of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl," a landmark 1956 epic poem that begins with 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...'
"While I admired and enjoyed this film, I will also honestly say that it's not an audience movie. It is impressionistic and hallucinatory, dealing with obscure figures out of literary history - obscure, at least, to anyone who is not a fan of or acquainted with the Beat movement of the 1950s."
May I interject a thought at this juncture? Howl is an audience movie -- it's very intriguing and friendly and enlightening every step of the way -- as long as the audience is not composed of popcorn-muching morons with shaved heads who wear gold chains and cutoffs and basketball sneakers with thick white athletic socks.
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Here's what I said in a 1.21.10 piece filed during the Sundance Film Festival:
Howl is "an indie, artsy, half-animated dream-cream movie that's basically an instructional primer for the uninitiated about what a wonderfully seminal and influential poem Allen Ginsberg's Howl was and is.
"It's brisk, condensed, in some ways florid, engaging, intellectually alert and stimulating. You know what this thing is? It's a gay Richard Linklater movie, only deeper and more trippy. It's an half-animated exploration thing that contains scenes of actors reading and 'being,' but in no way is this a movie that plays like a movie. It's something else, and that's a good thing for me.
"Howl is a 'small' film, but it's rather wonderful and joyful in the particulars.
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"Howl is not a narrative feature -- it's a near-documentary that says 'stop what you're doing and consider what a cool poem 'Howl' was...in fact, let us take you through the whole thing and show and tell you how cool and illuminating it is." It uses Waltz With Bashir-like animation to illuminate what 'Howl' was in Ginsberg's head when he wrote it, and what the poem's more sensitive readers might have seen in their heads when they first read it.
"James Franco plays Ginsberg quite fully, particularly and well -- he gets the slurring speech patterns and pours a mean cup of tea as he's explaining a point to a journalist -- but Franco, good as he is, is subordinate to (or should I say in harmony with?) the basic ambition of the film, which is to inform, instruct, awaken, turn on.
"For me, Ian McKellen's 'Acting Shakespeare' was a somewhat similar experience. An accomplished British actor explaining and double-defining the joy and transcendent pleasure of performing, feeling and really knowing deep down what Shakespeare's poetry really means, and has meant to him all his life."