Ginsberg for Generation Adderall

Howl, a movie about the iconic poem of the 50s Beat movement, offers nothing new to those familiar with Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. What it does instead is transmit a full-bodied poem into a movie. It’s not quite an adaptation but more of a close reading of a poem, annotated with biographical details and historical context in the form of movie scenes.

Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk), Howl stars James Franco as the great American poet Allen Ginsberg. We get snatches of Ginsberg’s life in New York as he encounters Jack Kerouac (Todd  Rolondi), Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), and his partner Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tvelt), and how Dadaist writer Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg meets in a mental asylum, sets off the decorum-smashing, movement-defining poem.

Howl James Franco

Watch the Video Trailer & Clips

Taking off from scenes of Ginsberg reading to a rapt crowd is an often literalist animation by Eric Drooker and Russell Barnes. The dynamically crude animation, leaping and shooting across the screen, turns some of Howl’s lines into moving images that capture Ginsberg’s rhapsodic anguish. Howl also shows how a poet’s engineered lines come from unexpectedly commonplace sources. There’s a funny, wonderfully executed scene where Ginsberg stumbles upon the phrase “windows of the skull.”

The movie spends a good amount of time on the 1957 trial against Ginserg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who published Howl and other poems through his City Lights Bookstore). David Strathairn and Jon Hamm play lawyers from both sides, and Mary Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels appear as academics arguing for Howl as smut. Alessandro Nivola and Treat Williams come in as the poem’s reluctant defenders, Luther Nichols and Mark Schorer. Shot in a deliberately sober pace, the courtroom segments are like stately chunks of a typical Hollywood biopic lodged in between black-and-white happenings of young Allen Ginsberg and fellow Beatniks.

James Franco, who some viewers might find too good-looking to play Ginsberg, is sincere and dedicated enough not to spoil the role. It’s not exactly Sean Penn disappearing under Harvey Milk’s skin. Just James Franco, current hot commodity in Hollywood, posing as Allen Ginsberg, and for Howl, it’s more than enough. This is a movie that’s rowdy, passionate, even sexy—it’s poetry dammit—and Franco has all that in spades. Franco may not look like Ginsberg but he moves and talks and even delivers a joke the way an Allen Ginsberg would have. Forget about the likeness. Not halfway into Howl, Franco’s love for the project glows through this performance; you’d believe this guy couldn’t be anybody else but Allen Ginsberg.

Howl James Franco

In one scene, Ginsberg talks about how uncomfortable he was sleeping next to the studly Neal Cassady, whom he’d been in love with, how he would curl up to the wall with his back turned to Cassady. James Franco is so good here you could almost see him trembling as he tries to suck desire into his ribcage. Of course, Cassady lets him unleash it. Franco’s Ginsberg, tentatively like a spider, unfolds himself, stretches his skinny limbs, and reaches out for this other warm, pulsating body. It’s a scene familiar to many of us who’ve once been scared of another person’s touch, and James Franco captures it so tenderly.

The biopic bits, recreated interviews, and scenes from the trial are thrown in almost haphazardly, but it all somehow coheres. How disappointing it would be to get a straight, earnest, dutifully organized biopic about Allen Ginsberg, let alone a prestige picture about a poem like Howl.

It’s also a small wonder, especially for Ginsberg’s readers, to see how contemporary Howl, the poem, feels in this movie. Epstein and Friedman manage to link events in Ginsberg’s life with images from Howl and hit a few recent hot button themes. The movie nudges us to rediscover the chapbook City Lights Bookstore printed more than fifty years ago. Epstein and Friedman’s Howl is a moving picture as a poem, the poem as a moving picture. It explodes on the page and burns on screen. It gets even better when it goes on in your head.

Howl is now available on DVD and Blue Ray at

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6 Responses to “Howl: Poetry as Film”

  1. […] Jon Hamm, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Check out John Bengan’s review of the film and read Alex Dimitrov’s ode to James […]

  2. […] lucky readers will win a DVD of the motion picture Howl staring James Franco (reviewed here) and a copy of the original poem, “Howl” written by Allan […]

  3. […] in literature classes). Poets want similar things, but we scale our expectations down a bit (movie adaptations of poems are few and far between), and we are in the odd position of having to explain that we understand we […]

  4. 15 May 2012 at 1:48 AM #


    I’ve seen the minds of my generation bested by their handheld mobile devices,
    texting for a dopamine rush, tuning out the reality around them.
    I’ve watched them, withdrawn from present company, looking for bars of microwave coverage, friending strangers, downloading angry birds,
    internet junkies, living in the ether, looking for that server connection to fame gauged by the number of hits they receive,
    who drive distractedly, causing fatalities in order to update their Twaddle® followers with TMI about their state of mind on the road,
    who walk into traffic, updating their relationship status or performing Binglehoo® searches for celebrity gossip or obituaries,
    who envision themselves as divas, broadcasting narcissistic images of every party or event they’ve attended in the camera phone eye, imagining others care,
    who live without discretion in the digital age, unknowingly or uncaringly giving up control over their destinies to follow the latest manufactured meme,
    who look with disdain on anyone behind the curve of the latest version of the smart phone that tracks them through time, space and potentially subversive ideas,
    who are misled into believing they have influence and choice because there’s an app for that,
    who are trained to demand ever higher speed connection because they’re afraid to be, “so seven seconds ago,”
    who fire up the Wiki at both ends eliminating the need for scholarly research or retention of thought,
    who ask YSIC about who watches them watch countless MPEGs of people’s posted antics that pile up a profile of their tagged interests,
    who are GPSed at all times allowing local merchants to alert them to sales or law enforcement to track their movements,
    who think they’re the source of the Arab Spring and 99% strong because sometimes they can pull off a successful flash mob,
    who trust all their personal information to cloud networks they don’t begin to understand,
    who are betrayed by the telecommunications industry they think serves them while ignoring Constitutional rights to due process and even freedom of speech,
    who believe convenience and expediency are more important than their right to privacy.
    who self-publish their diaries and essays as open blogs pretending that makes them journalistic writers,
    who post supercilious comments publicly, assuming they have the protection of anonymity because they hide behind a hash tag or screen name,
    who, hands free, carry on conversations with the air, like schizophrenic lunatics, speaking to virtual colleagues, even incommodiously in the commode.
    who refuse to turn off their ringtones assuming all potential calls more important than any play or concert they might attend,
    who sit in restaurants with downturned faces aglow, oblivious to their dinner companions, to check who has e-mailed in the last few minutes,
    who require medications for ADHD and bi-polar disorders, never making the connection to their constant multi-tasking, dividing their attention,
    who “can haz” perpetual amusement lolling at LOL sites, impersonally spamming inboxes worldwide with their latest animal pic find,
    who post videos to social sites of the last vestiges of actual experience witnessed, often disrupted, making them both virtual and forever.


    What routers have backed up the profitless souls naively sold to the machinery of control?
    Telco! Dotcom! Dotnet! Dotorg! Dotgov! Dotmil! Dotedu! Dottv! Dotbiz! Dotint! Everyday your bandwidth fills with the addresses you occupy.
    Telco, you are the new god of information, replacing books, magazines, newspapers and even postal letters.
    Telco! The world is trapped in the web you crawl seeking content management and infrastructure ownership.
    Telco, seemingly permanent, you leave no paper trail in cyberspace, so how can we know what really persists and what may have been censored?
    Telco, whose phones are smartest for you and whose service is about limiting access to information, you are the true user.
    Telco, whose attempts at regulation have been at least partially thwarted, your lies about protection of intellectual property have been anticipated.
    Telco, your secret bots relay the hidden data in our terminals that you cram with cookies.
    Telco, who wants to navigate our searches for us, leading us into realms most profitably marketable for you, may your electric banks surge without protection.
    Telco, whose plans to terrace farm the fertile fields will one day restrict totally free access, may you choke on the Creative Commons.


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  5. […] Bengan, John. […]

  6. […] Bengan, John. […]

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