REVIEW: Howl

Howl
Directed by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Written by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco / David Strathairn / Jon Hamm

Written and directed by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl is a special kind of movie that espouses different filmic styles. The first ten minutes of the film set up the groundwork for the rest of the story, opening on a black-and-white scene where Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) reads the opening lines from the nominal poem in a dusky building to a rapt audience of his peers. After the line “floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz” we transition to kinetic, jazzy opening credits.

We then cut to an interview with Allen Ginsberg, this time in color, followed by the court case regarding the obscenity in his poetry in 1957. After that we jump back two years to a black-and-white Ginsberg intently typing on a typewriter, which transitions into another animated sequence, where his letters become musical notes. The opening lines of the poem are again heard, this time accompanied by an animated sequence inspired by graphic artist Eric Drooker, which attempts to bring Ginsberg’s poetry to life.

This combination of documentary, narrative, and animated styles work well as individual pieces, but are inharmonious as a whole. Epstein and Freiedman excel in their documentary look, for sure, but also during the court case. While a considerable amount of time is focused on Allen Ginsberg’s life as it pertains to his writing, Howl is not a biopic. It’s more focused on the poem itself, and the censoring of art, which it is most known for. The court case, which is at the heart of the story, is a great example of the director’s ability to make the mundane intriguing, especially with the back-and-forth between David Strathairn (Prosecution) and Jon Hamm (Defense).

During the court case, many literary critics are brought to the stand and questioned about the literary qualities of Howl, and it’s staying effect. When one critic is asked by Strathairn, “Do you understand what ‘angel-headed hipsters yearning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’ means?”, he replies with a brilliant line: “Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.” Coupled with the animated sequences used throughout the film, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of this interaction.

The animation is well done, but doesn’t belong in a film about poetry, especially one that is defended in court in this manner. James Franco’s performance as Allen Ginsberg is incredible in the way he delivers the lines from Howl. There is an energy and excitement behind every word. I love the scene near the end of the film where Ginsberg reads the “I’m with you in Rockland” portion from Howl. Franco’s reading is emotionally sparked, and is one of the finest scenes in the film. The animated sequence of this reading that was shown earlier doesn’t carry the same weight. The viewer is shown images rather than getting caught up in the rhythm, the words, and the performance. As Ginsberg says during his interview, “Poetry is a rhythmic articulation of feeling.”

It’s a feeling that begins in the pit of the stomach and rises up through the breast, and out the mouth, and…and it comes forth as a croon or a groan or a sign. So you try to put words to that by looking around you and trying to describe that’s making you sigh, to sigh in a way, you simply articulate what you feel.

Allen Ginsberg

[Trailer] 127 Hours

Remember that little film Slumdog Millionaire from a few years ago? Director Danny Boyle is at again, but this time with a true-to-life tale starring the talented James Franco.

The official synopsis for 127 Hours is both overly congratulatory and wordy, so here’s my 127 second version:

James Franco gets his arm pinioned by a rock in a Utah canyon and is trapped there for 127 hours.

All snarkiness aside, I’m excited to see this film. Danny Boyle is a great director, and Franco is an actor who has the right amount of charisma and roughish charm to pull this role off. After watching the preview, I wondered if 127 Hours’s narrative structure would be more like Ladder 49 or Gus Van Sant’s mesmerizing Gerry. My guess would be on the former, citing Slumdog Millionaire as an example.

I am a little turned off by the back-patting in the trailer and synopsis, however. I can’t remember another preview that praised the director so much. (If I want to see to see endless internal praise I’ll watch Pixar’s behind-the-scenes documentaries) It’s not that Boyle doesn’t deserve the praise, but that’s not what I’m interested in seeing in a trailer; just give me the story.

What do you think? Am I making a big deal about nothing? Can this story be told well on screen?

127 Hours will be released November 5, 2010.

NetFlix Update

(Psst! By my NetFlix Friend)

1. The Ice Storm (Dir. Ang Lee)

Why Did You Pick That?

I recently started listening to the Movie Club Podcast on Film Junk, and in their latest episode they’re watched and talked about The Ice Storm and C.R.A.Z.Y. I haven’t seen either of these films, and I’ve been wanting to watch more of Ang Lee’s films lately.

2. Killer of Sheep (Dir. Charles Burnett)

Why Did You Pick That?

I heard about this film from Jeffrey Overstreet’s post about his favorite films from 2007. It sounded fascinating, and a while after his post it became available on NetFlix. The waiting list was always long, so I didn’t get a chance to watch it. After restarting my NetFlix account this Summer, I noticed that it was available again.

3. James Dean (Dir. Mark Rydell)

Why Did You Pick That?

Because James Dean is an interesting dude. And after watching Rebel Without a Cause earlier this year, I wanted to know more about him. When I first heard about this film, I was shocked at how much James Franco looks like Dean.

And on that topic, what other James Dean films should I watch? What are your favorites?