Wade on Birmingham

Shout 2010: Poetry in motion


Movie review: ‘Howl’

By Chance Shirley

Review at a glance: “Howl” ably gives life to poet Allen Ginsberg and his epic work through strong acting and fluid editing.


David Strathairn stars in “Howl.”

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” is an epic poem consisting of three parts (and an additional footnote). Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s “Howl” is a movie consisting of three parts. Interwoven are re-enactments of interviews with Ginsberg, a re-enactment of the obscenity trial of “Howl and Other Poems” publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and an animated interpretation of the poem.

Birmingham ShoutThe movie opened Birmingham Shout earlier tonight and opens in select theaters Friday.

The dramatic arc is mostly relegated to the obscenity trial. These courtroom scenes really sing, thanks to the subject matter — what is obscenity? what is art? — and especially, the casting. Bob Balaban plays the judge, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn the attorneys and Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels the witnesses.

James Franco plays Ginsberg in the interview re-enactments and narrates the “Howl” animation segments. I’ve been a fan of Franco since his comedic turn in “Pineapple Express” and his excellent work on the short-lived “Freaks and Geeks” TV series. “Howl” is another stellar accomplishment for him.

Franco spends much of the movie portraying Ginsberg in living room interviews, discussing his creative process, specifically the writing of “Howl.” This might seem to provide limited opportunities for expression, but Franco’s Ginsberg feels like a real person, not just an actor reciting quotes from 50-year-old interviews.

My one minor gripe with the film is the animated segment. During a courtroom scene, an expert witness explains to the prosecuting attorney, “Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.”

Creating animation to accompany a poem isn’t exactly translating it into prose, but it does interfere with allowing each reader to interpret the poem in his own way.

That said, “Howl” is a very long poem, and I can’t blame the filmmakers for looking for a cinematic way to convey it. And the animation itself, a mixture of computer and hand-drawn techniques, is excellent.

Like the poem, the movie has a footnote, a lovely bit of footage of the real Ginsberg in his later years, performing a simple song accompanied by accordion.

“Howl” is eminently watchable. The live-action cinematography is as striking as the animation, mixing black-and-white and color film stocks. And the editing is fluid, kinetic, even surprising sometimes, as it moves from animation to courtroom to living room.

chance shirleyChance Shirley, co-founder of Birmingham-based Crewless Productions, will participate as a panelist at the “Changing Forms of Distribution” Sidetalk at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival. He served as producer and writer on “Monster Hunt with James and Kevin,” premiering at Sidewalk on Saturday.

His sci-fi horror/comedy film, “Interplanetary,” should finally arrive on DVD in early 2011 from Camp Motion Pictures.


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1 Yip for “Shout 2010: Poetry in motion”

  1. Tweets that mention Wade on Birmingham » Shout 2010: Poetry in motion -- Topsy.com
    Friday, September 24, 2010, 8:41 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wade Kwon, Chance Shirley. Chance Shirley said: RT @WadeOnTweets Birmingham Shout start with a "Howl." @crewless praises acting, editing: http://itswa.de/shout-howl-rev #shout10 […]

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