Howl, the film whose premiere opened the 2010 Sundance Festival, is perhaps the most artistic and experimental storytelling displayed at this years festival. It is a presentation and exploration of Allen Ginsberg’s timeless poem of the same title, directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman and starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels.  It manages to capture both a moment in time from the beat era of the late 1950s, and reflect on the relevance of the poems message of isolation.  It is told through firsthand accounts from different eras, and different visual styles and media. Howl delves into the concept of measuring the value of art, while standing apart from the other films of the festival as a true work of art itself.  Read more about this film after the jump…

Howl is an amalgamation of five different vignettes.  First, a live reading of what is ostensibly the first time the poem is unleashed upon an audience by Allen Ginsberg (James Franco).  Second, interviews with an older Ginsberg, in which he discusses his life story.  Thirdly, a series of flashbacks serves as accompaniment to the interviews.  Fourth, a series of animations, set to a more subdued reading than the live version, which are as abstract as the poem itself.  Finally, and perhaps most palatably, a courtroom scene constructed from transcripts of the trial of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti attempting to paint the book in which Howl appeared as obscene.  The vignettes are cut together in such a way that they parallel the structure of the poem, offering perspective on the various influences that created the poem, and ways it influenced the world.

James Franco is positively sublime in this film.  His cadence and physicalizations make Ginsberg his portrayal of Ginsberg familiar, without coming off as forced.  In the flashbacks he displays the exuberance and terror of youth, and in the interview footage, he displays wisdom and maturity.  Almost all the other performances come in the courtroom scene, the two most prominent of which are Mr. Strathairn and Mr. Hamm, as prosecutor and defense respectively.  Strathairn maintains a smug sense of moral outrage and self-satisfaction that allows him to play this character as more of a villain than he’s ever done before.  And though it’s difficult to see Jon Hamm in a role like this without imagining him as Mad Men’s Don Draper, that’s because he is so very good at conveying utter confidence in his words that whatever he may say makes viewers feel as if they know what every word of what he’s asserting is inherently true.

Howl has received somewhat of a lukewarm reception at Sundance.  The buzz surrounding it seems to suggest that it is more of a disappointment than anything else.  Perhaps it’s because they were expecting a mere biography of the prolific author and poet.  However, this film is not a biopic.  Do not expect to see anything remotely close to the hackneyed and cliché Ray, or Walk the Line. What can be expected, however, is an insightful investigation of how a man unleashes his emotions and the world responds in kind.

Rating: 8/10