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Sundance Review: Howl

By  · Published on January 24th, 2010

The interpretation of art is tricky. In fact, most great works of art are the trickiest because what makes them great is that they can mean different things to different people. This is something I’ve known, but was reinforced by Rob Epstein’s excellent film Howl, which is a commentary on interpretation set against the obscenity trial that catapulted Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem into the national spotlight. This is also something I realized in the peer conversations that followed my viewing of the film – if taken one way, Howl is a great film. If interpreted another, it loses all of its impact. Allow me to explain my own interpretation.

From moment one, Howl is bred with an unexpected life and energy. It is jazz-filled and animated (literally, for more much of the film), just as the real life Allen Ginsberg’s life was jazz-filled and animated. For those not familiar, Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ was called into question in 1957 for its use of words such as ‘snatch’ and ‘cock,’ and other vulgarities that seem to be commonplace in this day and age. The movie examines the trial while also interpreting the poem through court tape recordings of Ginsberg (played by James Franco) and animated sequences.

But the film isn’t about the poem. It isn’t really about Ginsberg either. The author and his poem are merely the catalysts to a much bigger discussion – how is art interpreted, and does one interpretation of a work of art speak to a greater moral (or national) relevance? There is a certain amount of meditation on the subject of idea that in order to remain free, we must be allowed to use the words (or images) that we find necessary to bring our art to life. And that’s what makes half of this movie interesting.

I’m referring, of course, to the animated interpretations of Howl done by The Monk Studio. The chaotic representation of Ginsberg’s work can be off-putting, but it is closely mated with interviews done with Ginsberg during the trial. It is almost as if we’re seeing the interpretation of this classic poem, taken from the mind of the author, and transposed into fluid, vibrant animation. And its the juxtaposition of the interviews that makes it so interesting. Which brings us to why the other half of this movie is interesting.

The performance from James Franco is off the charts good. He embodies Ginsberg in both a literal sense and a figurative sense, which seems perfect for such a film. He locks down the unique cadence from Ginsberg’s tapes and also embodies (especially late in the movie when we see him reading the fourth and final part of ‘Howl’) the energy and booming enthusiasm that Ginsberg had for his art. When he speaks, as Ginsberg, on the poem being about frankness and that frankness opening up necessary discussions about cultural taboos, he’s not selling it, he’s living it. That, to me, is a sign of a talented actor.

Also great are the performances of David Strathairn and Jon Hamm, who play the lawyers on opposing sides of the obscenity case. As the bumbling, conservative prosecutor, Strathairn plays it earnestly. And on the other side is Hamm, who is the perfect choice for defense attorney Jake Ehrlich. That is, if I’m right in assuming that Ehrlich was exactly the same man as Mad Men’s Don Draper, in every manner of speaking. While Franco gets the spotlight for most of the film, its pivotal moment is executed perfectly in a monologue by Hamm. It is one of those truly great moments that requires an actor of such stature, and Hamm was the man for the job.

In the end, you could see this movie one of two ways. If you see it as an interpretation of the poem, there will be questions. Because so much of the accuracy of the filmmaker’s interpretation will be based on your own interpretation of the text. But if you see the film as a meditation on interpretation of art in any form, it takes on a new level of meaning. It is a complex, multi-layered commentary on art and what it means to different people. And in this writer’s opinion, it does an excellent job of being just that. Then again, it’s all a matter of interpretation.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)