The actor James Franco channels poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl, the part animation, part courtroom drama, part period piece about the creation of the iconic beat poem and the censorship trial for obscenity that followed its 1956 City Lights publication. Having filled the prestigious slot of opening night film at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Howl was featured this week at NewFest, premiering in New York at the 22 year old lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender film festival--appropriately so, as every kind of sex is openly rejoiced in this iconic poem, written at a dire time comedian Richard Pryor dubbed "the great pussy drought."
Howl, unusual for a film, delves deeply into the poem's language evoking taboo images of a subterranean realm of sex, drugs and jazz, and effectively conveys the arguments critics had to make in defense of the poem's redeeming human values, and America's first amendment rights at large. The actual trial transcripts supply the dialogue, comic in today's world.
Thus focused, Howl avoids the biography of the poet. And so spends little screen time on Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg's life partner who died this week of lung cancer, and who was buried on June 3, Allen Ginsberg's birthday. Peter Orlovsky penned the poetry volume, Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs, encouraged by Ginsberg to write.
This sad synergy augurs the end of an era: with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Diane DiPrima, and Gary Snyder the remaining elders of the beat movement. Fortunately the literature holds up with new publications forcing a re-evaluation of this literary circle that used to be best known for scandal. Look for the just released, The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation by Bill Morgan (Free Press), and especially the upcoming Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters (Viking). The correspondence reveals the sweet and sometimes belligerent Orlovsky on every page-Jack calls him Petey-- in his role as muse and significant other.
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