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Originally published Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'Howl': a film that celebrates language

A review of "Howl," a movie about the poet Allen Ginsberg — played by James Franco — and the trial surrounding his famous Beat-era poem.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Howl,' with James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels. Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

An attorney and a professor, in a courtroom, discuss — of all things — literature. The attorney, a harrumph evident in his posture and tone, asks the professor to explain a passage from a poem. The professor — Mark Schorer, of the University of California, Berkeley — politely declines. "Sir," he says, "you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it is poetry."

"Howl," directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is that rarity: a film that celebrates language. Though it's about the poet Allen Ginsberg and his famed Beat anthem "Howl," the film is not remotely a biopic. Rather, it's a unique blend of documentary, feature and performance art, with three different strands entwining: Ginsberg (played by James Franco) reading "Howl" in a coffeehouse; Ginsberg (Franco again) being interviewed in his home by a journalist; and scenes, played by actors, from the 1957 court trial in which San Francisco bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who originally published "Howl," was accused of distributing obscenity.

Epstein and Friedman didn't write the film as much as assemble it, using actual interview quotes and court transcripts. And while the loose structure takes some getting used to, it's ultimately effective and at times thrilling. The cast for the courtroom drama is splendid: Jon Hamm as the defense attorney; David Strathairn as the prosecutor; Bob Balaban as the judge; Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker as witnesses. As the "Howl" reading seems to twist itself around the courtroom scenes, the real-life characters discuss matters of literary merit; of whether readers need to be protected from ideas; of whether artists should be censored. "It's not for us to choose the words," says Hamm's character, in summation; and indeed, artistic freedom prevails.

These scenes are precisely directed and paced, as are the Ginsberg interview segments, letting the "Howl" reading stand in bold contrast. Filmed in grainy black-and-white, as if it were footage just discovered in the smoke-fragrant camera case of an "angelheaded hipster" (to borrow Ginsberg's phrase), it features Franco at first nervously reading from typewritten pages. We hear his voice and watch as the scenery twists into animation, with typewriter keys becoming jazz and images racing by as if drawn by a crazed, imaginative pen. By its end, Franco has become the poem, loosening into its dance, bobbing his head to the music of the words — and so, just maybe, have we.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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