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Howl -- Film Review

"Howl"

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PARK CITY -- You don't turn a poem into a movie and certainly not such a revolutionary, in-your-face, youthful and passionate work as Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." But then again, maybe you can, just not in the manner that longtime documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman presumed. In fact, they finally, in desperation, turned to the narrative format as they could find no other way to penetrate the 1956 literary work.

The movie mounts a four-pronged attack: animation, a simulated interview with Ginsberg (played imaginatively by James Franco), brief dramatizations of Ginsberg's life and a landmark obscenity trial that surrounds the birth of his game-changing poem all come together to capture how "Howl" landed in the middle of the Eisenhower era like a literary H-bomb.

"Howl" proved the perfect film to kick off Sundance 2010, a festival that means to rededicate itself to "cinematic rebellion" and indie experimentation. "Howl" fairly howls its proud defiance of commercial filmmaking norms. It's a heady flight into not just a particular poem but into the act of creativity itself, into how an artist breaks down barriers between himself and his art.

This exhilaration one feels watching this absorbing genre-bender doesn't mean the whole thing hangs together. It doesn't. The fragmented approach means some pieces don't fit, and you find yourself wishing for more of this and less of that.

Franco's Ginsberg is seen, in black and white, reading his poem in a Beat Generation coffee house to a young crowd growing more enthusiastic with each foray into homoerotic love, artistic hedonism and nihilistic drug-taking. A year or two later, the now established poet gives an interview -- this, like the rest of the film, is in color -- in which he explains his methods and reveals himself to be a disciplined, savvy artist fully aware of his craft.

Another section focuses on an obscenity trial over "Howl" in San Francisco, where the defendant is not Ginsberg but rather the poem's equally famous publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers). Here David Straithairn as a morally indignant prosecutor duels with Jon Hamm's defense attorney before an often-puzzled trial judge played by Bob Balaban.

Finally, there's the poem itself, imagined as you listen to its pulsating, on-rushing rhythms in surreal animation that feels like a contradiction -- a captivating nightmare with dark images that nevertheless appeal and attract.

Every piece of film involving Franco is terrific, but the problem is that there isn't nearly enough. The film barely sketches its hero and his emotional life. Some of this is even rendered in documentary-like revelations, about his mother and about his obsession with such Beat characters as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, rather than in fully scripted scenes.

The film never takes the leap into treating Ginsberg as a flesh-and-blood character but rather shoves him up on a stage or in front of a tape recorder as a cultural icon. Franco certainly delivers the performance, but the filmmakers haven't given it shape.

The animation, done in Thailand, is outstanding. If anything, you'd like to rerun just those sections, as "Howl" rages on the soundtrack, over and over again. They have a hallucinogenic feel that fits the poem like a glove.

The obscenity trial, frankly, could get lifted out, and the film would only improve. The courtroom footage is stiff and unconvincing. You get little sense of any of the personalities involved or what's at stake for them. Here especially the filmmakers' limited experience in feature filmmaking shows.

But what's cinematic experimentation without a few failures in the lab? Maybe that's why "Howl" is so appealing: The filmmakers don't get everything right but their passion for Ginsberg's genius and their excitement over trying to deconstruction a literary master work is contagious. A more perfect film might have been just a teensy-weensy dull.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: A Werc Werk Works production in association with Telling Pictures and Rabbit Bandini Prods.
Sales: Cinetic Media, the Match Factory
No rating, 80 minutes