Allen Ginsberg is often regarded as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. He is seen as a symbol of the Beat Generation and contributed to the San Francisco Renaissance. His most important work, Howl has created both worldwide controversy and praise. It escalated into a 1957 obscenity trial of the poet and Lawrence Ferlinghetti who had published Howl along with other selections from Ginsberg. The film is a celebration of Ginsberg’s life as well as the results of this trial.
In 1955, an unpublished 29 year old poet presented his vision of the world as a poem in four parts. His name was Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco) and the poem was Howl. In 1957, Allen and his work would be put on trial for obscenity. The trial would be prosecuted by Ralph McIntosh (played by David Strathaim) and defended by the prominent Jake Ehrlich (played by Jon Hamm). Judge Clayton W. Horn (played by Bob Balaban) would preside over the proceedings and render judgment.
Over the course of the trial we would hear from assorted experts that would speak in defense of the work or to go along with the claim that the material was obscene. During the trial, we are also witness to Allen Ginsberg reciting his acclaimed poem at the Six Gallery Reading which occurred on October 7th, 1955. In addition to the poetry hearing, we also get an interview with the poet who talks about his work and the history of his life which lead to this moment.
The film plays out like a docudrama, blending bits of the trial (dramatic moments) mixed in with things you would expect from a documentary. That is except it is all played out by actors and actresses since this occurred fifty, sixty years ago. The film is very odd in this sense. The poetry reading is also one that bears explanation as when Ginsberg speaks a passage, animation flows across the screen and accompanies the prose in very vivid detail. Bits of history from Ginsberg’s youth are played out in black and white while the poet speaks about them in the film’s current time period.
But my issue with the film is that it really isn’t a film. It’s more of a celebration of Ginsberg’s work; the film’s creators are just going to mix in the trial to be able to sell it as a film. This fits in the realm of a documentary and we just have Franco acting as if he were indeed Allen Ginsberg. He does a very good job in the film and he really drives the personality home. There in lies the problem however as Ginsberg comes off as a rambling pothead who felt like putting obscene words together to create a prose.
Make no mistake about it however that this work has exceptional literary merit as is proven by the trial. The trial is the most interesting part of the film and in my opinion isn’t used enough. The rogue’s gallery of recognizable stars as the experts for the prosecution and the defense are a treat. They include Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola, and Treat Williams. All of them made for fascinating characters and made this part of the film a pleasure to watch.
However, I can not say the same for the rest of the movie. It feels self-absorbed and at times could be described as an extended reading of the poem and not a dramatic film. In plainer terms, it is a mess. I can appreciate that there are many people who view Ginsberg as a genius and a poet without equal. However, all this film serves to do is cater to the people who already think wonders of him and not try to convert those who might be on the fence about his life struggles and work.
The video is in 1.85:1 widescreen presentation at 1080p resolution. The video is really a series of different styles whether it would be your usual color period piece from the late 50’s or the black and white video from the mid 50’s or the wonderful animation that exudes from the reading of “Howl”. So, it’s hard to assign a quality score to the video on a whole. However, from the animation to the footage of the trial, it is very satisfying and there are complaints to be had.
For the audio portion, we get a 5.1 DTS-HD track (PCM 2.0 Mix also included). As wonderful as the Video is, I found the Audio to be quite awful. The volume is quite literally all over the place. Music will be way louder than it needs to be and then when they break in with dialog, I’m starting to think I need a hearing aid. Comments from the peanut gallery aside, it’s uneven and really distracting. Subtitles are provided for English SDH and French folks.
- Audio Commentary with James Franco, Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman: A spirited commentary between the main star and the two makers of the film. There is a great deal of background on the film as well as why they decided to go the direction they did with it. There is a fair amount of dead space here, but rather than act like the film makers had little to say, it seemed more out of respect than anything else since it usually came at musical interludes or when the poem was being read.
- Holy! Holy! Holy! (The Making of Howl) 39:59: This is split up in eight parts and is about as detailed as you could expect from a making-of featurette. It goes over Ginsberg’s life as well shooting on location, the trial, the animation and even the aftermath of the Sundance Film Festival. A lot of good stuff for fans of the film.
- Director’s Research Tapes 28:32: Interviews with a bunch of the people who knew Allen personally from Eric Drooker to Steven Taylor to Peter Orlovsky. Out of all the features here I found this one to be the most interesting. The passion of how these people felt towards Ginsberg’s work showed here and provided a wealth of interesting tidbits.
- Allen Ginsberg Reads 35:01: Allen himself reads Howl aloud at the Knitting Factory from 1995. In addition, if you are viewing this on the Blu-Ray, you also get to listen to him read Sunflower Sutra and Pull My Daisy. I have to say Pull My Daisy is actually a really cool poem.
- James Franco reads Howl 24:59: Audio feature here with James reading the Howl poem. James really brings the emotion home and does quite well here.
- Q&A with directors Epstein and Friedman 22:28 : Another Blu-Ray special. James Cameron Mitchell moderates here by asking the directors a whole bunch of questions. Quite a bit of rehash here but another strong extra to close out the Blu-Ray.
- Trailers: Howl, Gunnin’ for the #1 Spot, Wendy & Lucy, Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, The Law, Terribly Happy, The Messenger, Tell Them Anything You Want, A Film Unfinished and William S Burroughs: A Man Within
- DVD: This film also comes with a dvd with the movie and all of the features except the Ginsberg extra poetry readings and the Q&A with the directors.
In my last comments, I could just come out and say that Allen Ginsberg did nothing more than smoke pot and write some witty banter. Honestly, that’s not true. He was a great contemporary poet and an activist for the Beat Generation. However, if there is somebody out there who isn’t sure about the man and become swayed enough to check out his poetry, one won’t find it in this film. It is a self absorbed docu-drama that reads like a long poetry reading. The trial simply isn’t used enough and is nothing more than a convenient marketing piece to pull unfortunate viewers in.
The Blu-Ray/DVD combo package will simply delight the people who already appreciate the film. The video is fantastic and the list of extras will several hours of material to look at and listen to. It can certainly be compared to what we see on Criterion discs and really overwhelms fans with a ton of material. The audio for the film is the only disappointment. It’s too low but most people should be able to suffer through it. In the end, I can’t recommend this film, because it really isn’t one. But if you are a fan of Ginsberg or James Franco, you’ll want to pick this up if nothing else.