January 25, 2011

Justify My Netflix: Howl

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)


Today's movie: Howl, 2010 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it's an experimental documentary from industry veterans Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (best known for 1995's The Celluloid Closet, about the lives of gay actors in pre-Stonewall Hollywood), which uses all the real events and dialogue behind Allen Ginsberg's 1955 Beat Generation poetry classic and subsequent obscenity trail but then films it all in a narrative-feature style, including the use of celebrities like James Franco and Jon Hamm in key roles (respectively, Ginsberg himself and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti's lawyer).

The reality: Not too bad, actually! But of course, let's acknowledge that any movie based on the premise of filming a Beat poem runs a high risk of turning out ridiculously pretentious and silly, and that a big part of me enjoying this one is simply relief that it didn't turn out that way itself; but that said, the film has a lot of legitimate things going for it as well, starting with Franco's astonishing transformation into a sleepy-eyed, nebbish Jewish intellectual, a feat I would've thought impossible with such a handsome WASP like him, done all through posture and performance which makes it even more remarkable. Now add the inventive way the filmmakers make sure to get across a documentary's worth of information but in a narrative-feature style, by creating essentially five types of footage then mixing it all together -- a black-and-white recreation of the poem's performance premiere at City Lights Bookstore in 1955, a a full-color recreation of the obscenity trial, a cutting-edge animated version of the poem's actual contents, a supposed interview with Ginsberg ten years later that's shot on grainy '60s film stock, and black-and-white flashbacks to Ginsberg's college years in the '40s, palling around with Beat buddies Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, all of these threads cut together complexly so that they each inform the others -- and you can see why it's easy to call this an experiment that succeeds and succeeds wildly, although it should always be kept in mind that it's still an experiment, and as such will simply turn some people off no matter how well done it is. I was an obsessive fan of the Beats when I was younger, and am still a pretty strong one to this day, and I ended up really liking the film quite a bit, so take that however you will.

Worth your time? Yes

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:42 AM, January 25, 2011. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |