One of the films most overlooked by the Oscars this year is the fabulous Howl by Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffrey Friedman. Executive produced by the inimitable Gus Van Sant, starring the talented James Franco and shot in just fourteen days in New York City, Howl is a gem. The film is based on court records, poems by and interviews with Allen Ginsberg – an American poet who is finally getting the screen recognition his legacy demands.
The story follows the 1957 obscenity trial launched by the US government against City Lights Bookstore owner and Howl publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A fascinating conversation in of itself—what is obscenity and who decides based on what criteria and for what purpose/whose interests—the courtroom piece of this historical narrative could be its own film, much like the animated Chicago Seven. But Epstein and Friedman venture outside the Department of Justice and treat their audience to a rich tapestry of animation, documentary footage, and dramatized interviews and moments with Ginsberg – all of it gathering around the brilliant and vivid (and let’s not forget, obscenely queer) poem by the same name, Howl. Immediately following the credit-roll I dug out my dog-eared copy of Howl and was reminded of days when I used to take the time to appreciate poetry. And that’s precisely the effect Howl (the film) has: after a 90 minute sensory stroll through a world dominated by creativity and resistance to oppressive societal norms (and institutions) you want more. So why not read a poem?