A howling good movie

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Some people just aren’t into poetry. One might argue that if a writer is unable or unwilling to deliver proper narrative, they oughtn’t bother trying to express themselves at all.

Then there’s beat poetry: often radical; usually delivered in semi-narrative / semi-schizophrenic prose; and sometimes spoken to a musical beat. Beat poetry is often penned by artists wishing to defy convention. It paved the way for the ‘Beat Generation’ of the early 1950s, its hallowed patrons including the loose-living likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and its headquarters the dingy bars and cafés of pre-hippy San Francisco.

Once, while visiting San Francisco, I was cruising down one of those old streets and stumbled upon the awesome City Lights Bookstore. Not knowing then that the shop was founded by beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I still immediately sensed a definitive indie vibe to the place. In fact, so potent was the beatnik mojo of this place, that a psychedelic-60s-free-love-San-Fran style spirit seemed to overtake me and I ended up making out with a fellow book browser in the upstairs library within 15 minutes of being there!

Anyway, I ended up purchasing a stack of classic books but, alas, the store had run out of beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s infamous slice of literary rebellion, ‘Howl’. To this day I’ve yet to read the book, but when I came across the DVD release of the same title – a biopic of the author – I was thrilled for three reasons: firstly, it starred spunky James Franco (and I knew how much fun he is in period roles having seen him play Sean Penn’s lover in ‘Milk’); secondly, I’d heard the film itself was a cross between realist documentary and psychedelic animation (and I do love a good, trippy flick); and thirdly, it hinted at putting a clearer picture together of my mixed-up emotions towards the touchy topic of poetry.

The production values of ‘Howl’ are high, indeed, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman taking great care in setting Ginsberg’s words to potent imagery, effortlessly weaving slick animation in and out of their quality, realist cinematography. It’s what Ginsberg would have loved to view on the telly, had there been MTV in the late ’50s. While the film purposely falls into that arthouse category usually reserved for university undergrads to appreciate, its familiar cast (Jon Hamm of ‘Mad Men’; Mary Louise Parker of ‘Weeds’), and familiar courtroom drama setting, ought to appeal to a broader audience that might otherwise turn away from something as retro-laden as beat culture.

I myself was hooked from start to finish; found Ginsberg’s lyrics a delight to tune into – even a second or third time in the film; and am happy to say I have now opened my mind to reading other genres of poetry, too.

‘Howl’ is out on DVD through Madman Entertainment.