Ginsberg's poetry not brought to life

Imagine a movie about Leaves of Grass or The Wild Party or Ulysses. Now, imagine a movie about Walt Whitman, Joseph March or James Joyce. My sense is that the poet, not the poem, makes a much more intriguing subject for film. Poetry is ... poetry, and to confine it to definitive images on a screen is to inhibit its power to inspire.

Howl, while a noble effort by writers/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is fog-bound in a noble but ultimately disappointing effort to examine one of the most controversial artistic landmarks of the 20th century.

The film boasts an amazing cast, led by the enigmatic James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg, author of Howl. Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn and Mary-Louise Parker also appear. In 1957, a celebrated San Francisco trial challenged the right to publish what the State of California said was obscene. The courtroom scenes are great, but there are way too few of them. In Howl, we see Ginsberg's journey from obscurity to a stint in a psychiatric ward to a cross-country road trip. Unfortunately, that section is also way too short.

The lion's share of the movie attempts to reimagine the poem visually. Franco reads over-long portions of the profanity-laced Howl while nightmarish animations by Eric Drooker fill the screen. But as far-flung as Drooker's images are, they're still too confining and almost defeat the purpose of celebrating the purity of Ginsberg's work.

In the end, Howl is interesting, but it commits the original sin of cinema. It fails to entertain. You'll want to love this movie, but you'll barely like it.

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Rated NR · 86 min. · 2010
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Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Writer: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Producer: Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine K. Walker
Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels and Aaron Tveit

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