Howl (Blu-ray)(Oscilloscope Laboratories, 1.4.2011)
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is the best-know work of poetry created by the beat generation, a cause célèbre in the 1950s because of its profanity, sexual imagery and anger at the complacency of American consumer society. The first feature film by directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman -- whose documentaries include The Celluloid Closet and
Since we can’t know what the fuss was about without hearing Howl in its entirety, the filmmakers have chosen to alternate between Ginsberg’s reading of the poem in a San Francisco club and what Epstein and Friedman call a “Beat Fantasia,” animation trying valiantly to visualize the poem’s angry metaphors. The animation grows tiresome quickly, but looks striking on Blu-ray, as does Edward Lachman’s black-and-white footage of the reading. Franco, who bears a surprisingly close resemblance to the young Ginsberg, is at his best when reading Howl, throwing himself into it fully, making the poet smile with pleasure at his creation. Good performances are also delivered in the courtroom scenes by David Strathairn as the prosecutor, Jon Hamm as the defense attorney, Bob Balaban as the judge, and Jeff Daniels as a Berkeley English professor who stumbles his way through an attack on the poem.
The unusual but effective commentary features Franco interviewing the directors about how the film came to be and what factors influenced their decisions (Franco is surprised to learn that he was recommended for the role by his Milk director Gus Van Sant). The best section of the 40-minute making-of extra is production designer Thérèse DePrez’s explanation of how Ginsberg’s apartment was recreated and how she collaborated with Lachman. Other extras include the directors’ interviews with Ginsberg’s friends and collaborators (including Ferlinghetti), a 1995 reading by Ginsberg, audio of Franco reading the poem and the directors’ Q&A at the Provincetown Film Festival. -- Michael Adams