Young men and women decked out in Ray Ban glasses, skinny ties and penny loafers pack the room. Smoke from their cigarettes twists its way forward where it lingers under a heavy spotlight on stage. One young man steps into the light, adjusts his heavy framed glasses and begins to read: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”


At the Michigan

With these words, Allen Ginsberg’s immortal poem “Howl” gave a voice to the Beat Generation. The film “Howl” tries to capture the essence of the poem and examine Ginsberg’s (James Franco, “127 Hours”) own experiences — his writing process, the meaning and imagery of the poem, as well as the obscenity trials that followed its publication.

Franco may as well be in hipster heaven with his Ginsberg part. Playing the poet adds just the right amount of coolness to any actor’s résumé. But at first it seems that his beard isn’t wild enough, he’s too handsome, too suave. Franco just doesn’t seem to be enough of an outsider. He’s more of a Neal Cassady or a Jack Kerouac type.

However, as soon as he starts reading the poem, any doubts about Franco’s ability to pull off the role vanish. “Howl” (the poem) was written to be read aloud and Franco is aware of this. He aptly captures the jazz-inspired rhythm and manages to insert humor at exactly the right parts — poems about “alcohol and cock and endless balls” can’t possibly be read with a straight face the whole way through.

But of course, the problem with such a convincing performance is that it becomes a Franco-as-Ginsberg-fest and “Howl” doesn’t just belong to him. It’s not just his story, but also the story of the minds of a generation. There isn’t just one way to interpret the poem.

Part of the film’s struggle is in interpreting the poem. As Ginsberg reads the poem, the black and white film dissolves into a strung-out animation. The process of reading a poem is based on interpreting for oneself what things like “storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light” actually mean. Instead of allowing the audience to figure that out, there’s a cartoon about it. But this is very limiting — the animation just might not work for some viewers. While it’s perfectly OK that the animators thought a particular line would be best shown as a forest of giant dicks, that’s not necessarily the only way to read it. But it still comes across like that is the message, despite the movie’s best efforts to deal with and incorporate a variety of themes ranging from Eastern philosophy to drug-induced hazes.

At any rate, poetry interpretation is sticky business and perhaps a difficult pursuit on film. But what “Howl” provides a context for the poem through the obscenity trial without turning the movie into a biopic or a documentary. Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) plays the lawyer defending the poem and, near the end of the movie, delivers a strong monologue about freedom of speech. From a historical approach, this is perhaps the most significant part of the legacy of “Howl” as a poem — as a reminder of the American tradition of freedom and a celebration of diversity.

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