Howl at Sundance
Marking, for 20th Century poetry, a rare foray into the more legitimate echelons of popular culture, the new film Howl, about the 1957 Allen Ginsberg obscenity trial, opened the Sundance Film Festival last week. For context, that’s the film festival in Utah. And Utah, for the geographically challenged, is the one with the Mormons.
The movie stars James Franco, who maybe looks a little too much like the Grecian God of Handsomeness to play a poet, but comes across as reasonably similar to his character and, most importantly, seems to have some literary ambitions of his own.
The structure of this thing has me excited, both as a lover of poetry and a hater of biopic formula and excess. Made by a filmmaking team (Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman) who have worked solely in documentary before this, it pulls all its dialogue from three sources: a reading of the poem in its entirety, the transcript of the trial, and a contemporary interview given by the young Ginsberg. The minimalism is intriguing, and moreover, I’m all for experimentation in authorial biopics. The sub-genre has, with maybe one exception, become a parade of unexceptional stories about the lives of exceptional people.
Beyond Franco as Uncle Overalls, the cast includes character acting’s two most mid-century personas, namely David Straitharn (Ed Murrow in Goodnight and Good Luck, as well as Pierce Patchett in Vox Pop’s all-time favourite movie) as the prosecution and Don Draper himself, John Hamm, as the defense. The list of characters also includes a Cassady, an Orlovsky, a Ferlinghetti, and a Kerouac, all played by people I’ve never seen. Alessandro Nivola plays the critic Luther Nichols, Mary-Louise Parker is a conservative talkradio lady, Jeff Daniels is a Columbia professor though apparently not Mark Van Doren, and Bob Balaban is the judge presiding over the obscenity trial.
Here’s a selection of the early reviews:
…the great film blog Cinematical likes Franco but is unsure if the structure works.
…those crazy kids at MTV give it two thumbs up, or whatever the youthful term is nowadays
…IFC thought it was powerful, but too ambigious. Obviously they’re new to poetry.
…and it’s the local SLC paper that seemed to like it the best.
I remain optimistic. No word yet on a distributor, but I imagine the combination of Franco and the buzz means we’ll see it at TIFF at least, and quite possibly in regular release.