Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Main Cast: James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, John Hamm, David Strathairn
This loving homage and documentary-style reconstruction of the obscenity trial of Ginsberg’s poem uses animation, interviews and courtroom drama to stunning and ultimately moving effect.
In cinemas from 25th February 2011
Courtroom based dramas shouldn’t engage like this, but it becomes quickly clear that the postwar years in America polarised its citizens; in one corner were the respectable, decent average citizens, unperturbed by the need to change themselves and in the other the Beat generation, restless and out of step with the sensibilities of their parents’ era. Ginsberg (Franco) starts out on his journey haunted by his mother’s insanity and the fear that his father might read his all-too-revealing poems. The poems in turn become a conduit for his emerging homosexuality and the reconstructed interviews provide a thoughtful backdrop for Ginsberg’s evolution as a poet and a troubled young man coming to terms with being gay in fifties America. It is a film that is as much about the process of writing as it is about Ginsberg’s journey as a poet and gay man.
Interspersed with this are visionary animated depictions of the poem ‘Howl’ tying in with Ginsberg’s peyote-fuelled visions and the images of hetero and homo sex that got his publishers into hot water. As if that weren’t enough, Franco turns in a powerhouse performance of Howl at the poetry dive in New York; enthralling us as well as the dive audience with the commitment and passion of his words.
A word of warning though; women as lovers, friends, fellow-poets or mothers are absent here. Ginsberg himself signed the papers authorising his mother’s lobotomy at age 21. His mother’s insanity is referenced and relived in the poem through the experiences of Solomon, a man with whom Ginsberg was incarcerated and who endured ECT as did Ginsberg’s mother. Gail Potter (Parker), a radio personality of the time and prosecution witness is dismissed summarily at the trial. This may be rather the point though, the female principle is seen as frightening and oppressive.
The courtroom segments are powerful and moving, particularly towards the end when Ferlinghetti’s lawyer Ehrlich (Hamm) argues persuasively for the de-blinkering of American opinion towards new and difficult poetry. The prosecution lawyer McIntosh’s (Strathairn at his weaselly best) defence that the poem should be ruled obscene in order not to upset the average American who may not understand it crumbles in the face of surprisingly enlightened and measured judgement; a fact that mirrors Ginsberg’s own quest for love and acceptance.
Most movingly, Ginsberg himself appears at the end in archive footage singing one of his own poems set to music, a fitting footnote to the evocation of one of the great poems of the twentieth century, born as it was from the trauma of war, fracture of madness and dissolution of hidebound mediocre tradition.
Running Time: 84 minutes
Country of Origin: USA