Brandon's Sundance Review: Epstein & Friedman's Howl
by Brandon Lee Tenney
January 30, 2010
Howl was the opening night film at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Starring James Franco and Jon Hamm, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the film centers on Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl, the obscenity trial levied against the book publisher who published it, and the analysis of the poem at large. The film is more experimental fare, mixing animation, black and white live action, color live action, and a faux-talking head interview with Allen Ginsberg played by Franco. Along with the interview, the other three sections are Ginsberg reading his poem aloud to a crowded bar, the obscenity trial, and a visual interpretation of Ginsberg's words in the form of vibrant pastel colored animation.
The film is akin to taking a college course where your goal is to analyze and deconstruct the poem. The best part is that Epstein and Friedman have already done the work and you just get to watch it. It's a biopic, but not. Through the faux-interview, we are privy to Ginsberg's life and thoughts and feelings, but elsewhere it's all about the trial and the effects of Howl. Jon Hamm, who plays the attorney, Jake Ehrlich, on the side of the defense, is a power house. He commands the screen. James Franco is outstanding is some parts of the film and only a mimic in others. His performance never quite gelled on screen. It's the animation interpretation of the poem's more heady verses that are most intriguing. It's trippy and highly intellectual, but beautifully accomplished.
In the film, a witness for the defense states that "you can't translate poetry into prose, that's why it's poetry." Well, this film has ably translate one of the most impacting poems of the 20th Century into a film. Quite an accomplishment, and one that is able to be entertaining, too.
Brandon's Sundance Rating: 7 out of 10