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James Franco stars in artistic representation of celebrated poem

Ekphrasis is the literary representation of visual arts. The film Howl, then, is that process in reverse. Centered around the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's much-celebrated poem of the same name, Howl successfully illuminates and carries the spirit of the original work to another generation of readers - or viewers.

Howl and Other Poems was first published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books. The poem "Howl" starkly depicts the hetero- and homosexual acts of its characters, causing Ferlinghetti to be brought in on obscenity charges in the year following its publication.

There are four different parts of the film Howl, each of which congruently and concurrently move forward as the film progresses: the scenes from Ferlinghetti's obscenity trial, an extended interview with a young Ginsberg as portrayed by James Franco, a reading of the poem in a San Francisco bar and animated visualizations that accompany the reading of the poem.

The movie uses these different levels to make clear just how evocative - and just how controversial - the poem was upon its release. The court scenes show how bewildered the mainstream reader of "Howl" might have been in 1956, its original year of publication. The witnesses for the prosecution, who argue that the poem is obscene, are made to seem out-of-touch and unaware of the poem and its goals.

The film makes it clear that those hapless witnesses - if they are not on the wrong side of the debate - are certainly not on the more appealing side. It makes the viewer sympathetic to Ginsberg by allowing him, via the interview scenes, to flesh out the autobiographical context of the poem and to discuss his intentions and techniques used in its creation.

The animated visualizations of the poem spectacularly, and often hauntingly, visualize the various adventures of the poem's characters, Ginsberg, his friends and lovers, and the emotions they experienced. Although the animations sometimes feel heavy-handed, they work well to enhance and evoke the spirit of the poem, especially for a viewer unfamiliar with the work.

A purist might argue that the poem can only speak for itself, without annotation from the author or visual aides such as those used in the film. Generally, I would have to agree, and I would even argue that a poem that needs such context is a failed poem. But "Howl" the poem has long been viewed as a successful work of art, and the film only reemphasizes that and makes clear the context that an original reader of the poem during the late 1950s would have had.

It is critical to note that the film does not answer all the questions raised during the storyline. By and large, it allows the poem to speak, and that becomes the film's greatest strength. It gives the viewer the correct perspective from which to view the poem, but then it stands aside, allowing the verse - potent as ever - to take hold of the audience.


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