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.
James Franco stars in the upcoming “127 Hours” as engineer/mountaineer Aron Ralston, who was climbing alone in the Utah canyons on what he thought would be a day trip when a boulder fell on his arm, pinning him against the canyon wall. For six days, unable to move, he tried to chip or push it away. Finally, he understood that in order to survive, he would have to lose his hand and lower portion of his arm. He performed a self-amputation with only a dull knife, rappelled one-armed down the side of the mountain, and walked six miles to get help. His book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place tells the story.
Writer-director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) has made this extraordinary achievement into a movie of great power, touching, moving, exciting, and inspiring. And Franco gives one of the best performances of the year.
Here is the real Aron Ralston, who now uses his story to help audiences think about what we can do to survive, how to analyze and solve problems, how to think about priorities, about healing, the importance of taking responsibility and how to be fully alive, which means being fully grateful.
The gospel world and everyone who loves music that lifts the spirit had a double loss this week with the passing of the magnificent Albertina Walker and “King” Solomon Burke. They will be deeply missed. But their glorious recordings will continue to bring us joy and inspiration forever.
Twelve new episodes of “Shalom Sesame” are out on DVD, Welcome to Israel and Chanukah: The Missing Menorah. The creators of “Sesame Street” produce this series with Israel’s Channel HOP! to bring the vitality of Jewish culture and tradition and the diversity of Israeli life to American children and their families. The “Sesame Street” characters and guest stars like Debra Messing and Jake Gyllenhaal introduce children to Hebrew letters and words and Jewish values, mitzvot (good deeds), and holidays. The DVDs are supported with teaching materials.
I have one copy of each to give away to the first person who sends me an email at email@example.com with Shalom: Israel or Shalom: Chanukah in the subject line. Don’t forget to include your address!