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In 1955, an unknown 29-year-old San Francisco poet named Allen Ginsberg released a four-part poem called “Howl.” The poem was filled with gritty imagery and deeply personal accounts, often told using explicit language that many found shocking and offensive. So, two years later, the poem’s publisher, City Lights, was arrested for publishing obscenity, resulting in a ground-breaking court case that seemed to put a generation, its language, its experiences, and its art on trial.

A combination of documentary, biopic, and poetry reading, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl is a film in three intertwined parts. Using court transcripts, it offers a dramatization of the trial, in which a variety of experts debated style, form, and philosophy and discussed whether or not the poem had any literary merit. Meanwhile, using recordings of interviews, it also explores the adventures, experiences, and emotions that led Ginsberg (played by James Franco) to write his legendary poem. And, finally, it puts the poem itself on display, through Franco’s readings, which are accompanied by an appropriately jazzy soundtrack and a series of colorful illustrations.

Much like the poem itself, the film is often more an experiment than a story. It isn’t always completely comprehensible—just a collection of vivid images, lyrics, and brief glimpses of moments in the story. It’s all hip and stylized, with a cool ‘50s feel—but this is no idealized ‘50s sitcom; it’s a strange and often rambling film, filled with poetry, music, and imagery.

“Howl” isn’t the kind of poem that you can easily decipher. And as the words go flying by, you’ll often find yourself hopelessly lost and confused. After all, it’s pretty difficult to get a good grasp on the meaning of such an epic poem in just one hearing—without the opportunity to follow along, to study the words. Still, the film is written and edited in a way that helps to explain parts of the poem, detailing Ginsberg’s own life story before reciting the segments of the poem that relate to his experiences. Franco, meanwhile, makes it all come to life—both through his rhythmic, melodic reading of the poem and his engaging performance as the young poet.

After seeing Howl, you probably won’t fully understand Ginsberg’s iconic poem. You may not fully understand Ginsberg himself, either. But while Howl is often a strange and perplexing film, it’s also a mesmerizing and even hypnotic look at the legendary beat poet’s life, his art, and his generation.

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