Howl Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Howl Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
More than 60 years after the fact, when censorship standards have become accommodating enough to permit the existence of The Human Centipede, it's curious why anyone would have an interest in the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.

In mid-twentieth century America, it may well have been considered taboo for an author to publish "obscene" words like "cock," "balls," "fuck" and "snatch," but nowadays, when CBS is airing a three-camera laugh-track sitcom all but called Shit My Dad Says, it's like, who cares?

It comes as no surprise that the obscenity trail segments of Epstein and Friedman's muddled, sort-of Ginsberg biopic are its least interesting bits. For one, we already know the ending, rendering the scenes of "experts" defending or reprimanding the literary merit of Ginsberg's work largely perfunctory. It also seems like another excuse for square-jawed Jon Hamm (as defence attorney Jake Ehrlich) to look dapper-as-hell in a well-tailored period costume.

The best bits in Howl belong to star James Franco. That he packed on some paunch to play Allen Ginsberg speaks only to his dedication to the role, though the beard looks in places like it's been painted on.

Alternating with the courtroom footage are scenes of a young Ginsberg mulling around squalid tenements, swapping poetry and prose with his beat generation buddies, falling hopelessly in love with Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), further interspersed with animated adaptations of Ginsberg's controversial poem, engorged penis forests and all.

It's all a bit silly in its outmoded self-seriousness, but buoyed by Franco's seminal performance, Howl is pleasant enough. It may also prove educational for anyone who possesses zero knowledge of twentieth century U.S. literature.

Then again, why those people would be interested in seeing a film about Allen Ginsberg brings us back to Howl's central predicament: who exactly is this film for? (Mongrel Media)