Howl | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


The poet and his (in)famous work get the cinematic treatment

This film probably won't convince anyone that Allen Ginsberg is an important poet or an interesting man, but for those of us who know he is, it's engaging cinematic theater and great fun to watch. James Franco doesn't imitate Ginsberg in his introspective portrayal. He merely adopts a Ginsberg-like cadence. As the poet reads his opus -- in a smoky coffeehouse, and over ethereal animation of its stories and metaphors -- we see highlights of its 1957 obscenity trial. Jon Hamm defends it, with David Strathairn prosecuting. Meanwhile, in New York, a journalist tapes a lengthy interview with Ginsberg about his life and art. 

There's no scripted dialogue in Howl, just readings, more or less -- of the poem, the interview and the trial transcript, with virtually silent dramatic cutaways to earlier times in Ginsberg's life (swooning over Jack Kerouac, going down on Neal Cassady -- that sort of thing). At trial, Treat Williams and Alessandro Nivola play the good lit profs, Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker are the bad ones, and the judge is a steely but fair Bob Balaban. The prophet, says Ginsberg, doesn't presage: He simply knows what people will pick up on in 100 years. Fifty years after Ginsberg wrote "Howl," we're almost there. Directed by Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffrey Friedman (who made The Celluloid Closet with Epstein). Starts Fri., Nov. 26. Regent Square