In the post-WWII era of peace and prosperity — and the Cold War and the blacklist and conformity — a small group of writers found much to terrify and infuriate them. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” one of them wrote, the beginning of a barbaric yawp of a poem of fury and protest called “Howl.” His name was Allen Ginsberg.
This movie is not the story of Ginsberg (smoothly played by James Franco), who would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed and influential poets, though he is affecting, even at times electric. It is the story of the poem itself, taking us back and forth between three key moments. First is Ginsberg’s own performance, reading the poem aloud in a small, smoky club. Second is an interview two years later with a now-bearded Ginsberg in his apartment. And third is a courtroom, where the obscenity charges brought not against Ginsberg but against his publisher, fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were being argued.
“Experts” (Mary-Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Jeff Daniels) debate the literary merit and destructively prurient content of Ginsberg’s work on the witness stand. The prosecution (David Straithairn) argues that the poem is so detrimental to the minds of Americans that it should not even be seen. For the defense, Jake Ehrlich (“Man Men’s” Jon Hamm), with a natty four-cornered pocket square handkerchief, who shows the court that far more important than any expert’s opinion on the value of Howl as a work of art is the freedom for Americans to decide that issue for themselves.
And for me at least, that is where the real poetry is.
Parents should know that this movie is unrated because Howl and the discussion of the obscenity charge include some very strong and crude language and sexual references.
Topics for discussion: When — if ever — should the government stop publication of a book? What about movies, games, theater, or paintings? Read up on the history of the 1st amendment and the kinds of materials that have been challenged.
If you like this try: reading Howl and some of Ginsberg’s other poems as well as On the Road and, to find out more about the obscenity trial, Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression