Friday, March 25, 2011


Howl, the film, centres on Allen Ginsberg's famous poem of the same name. It juxtaposes an animated interpretation of the poem alongside clips from re-enacted interviews with Ginsberg (played brilliantly by James Franco), scenes from the first reading of Howl in San Francisco in 1955 and scenes form the 1957 obscenity trial against the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

It's a brilliant film, moving seamlessly from black and white to colour to animation and back, set to a jazz soundtrack. The animation is mesmerising, with swirling colours interplaying with monstrous tower blocks with blind windows, and hordes of mindless business men and soldiers crossing the screen. The poem is a passionate howl about life as it is lived, about sex and alienation, alcohol and drugs.

Alongside the poem itself, the scenes from the trial address issues around freedom of speech, both in terms of who has the right to label something obscene just because they are uncomfortable with the language used and also the need for a writer to be true to her or himself.

This latter was something that Ginsberg had struggled with as he was gay, but was for a long time uncomfortable with this, which lead to him repressing his true self in his poetry. A couple of times in the film he says that he sometimes used to feel himself held back from writing what he felt, because he didn't want his father to read it. He had overcome this fear when writing Howl.

Ferlinghetti won the obscenity trial when Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of "redeeming social importance", which helped to make Howl a celebrated literary success.

Howl is showing at The Filmhouse in Edinburgh until Thursday 31 March.

Ferlinghetti is also a great poet, you can read my review of his book Wild Dreams of a New Beginning here.

A film review for the LGBT Reading Challenge
As ever, coloured text in this post takes you to a new webpage where you can find out more!


Jim Murdoch said...

I agree it was a good film and I enjoyed it. I was gifted a copy of Howl about thirty years ago. I probably read two pages of it and I subsequently lost the book. The guy who sent it to me was a huge Ginsberg fan and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t immediately caught up in the piece but it failed to reach me so when I watched Howl this was the first time I heard the poem read from beginning to end and I still didn’t like it. The animation kept me entertained but the poem just went on and on. I’m afraid I’ve never been much into stream of consciousness writing – I can’t manage more than a few lines before my internal editor steps in – but seeing the poem in context was helpful and I would still recommend the film. It was well done.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Jim - I'm not in general one for lots of stream of consciousness writing, in Howl it's the passion and honesty that engages me, but the animation in the film drew me in even more!

Amin said...

I agree Jim Murdoch...Very interesting post!