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The Beat Goes Off

Howl (2010)

2010 Sundance Film Festival

The Beat Generation should be fertile ground for cinematic harvest, but David Cronenberg's treatment of William S. Burroughs's "Naked Lunch" remains the only worthy adaptation that comes to mind. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, documentarians behind "The Times of Harvey Milk" and "The Celluloid Closet," now try their hands at fashioning Allen Ginsberg's monumental poem "Howl" for the screen. The two had originally conceived the project as a documentary to commemorate the poem's 50th anniversary, but the dearth of available archival footage forced them to take the fiction approach.

Messrs. Epstein and Friedman interweave the first public reading of "Howl" at San Francisco's Six Gallery, the subsequent obscenity case against its publisher and a composite interview with Ginsberg (played by James Franco). The directors employ several documentary tropes, such as testimonial interview and animation. Indeed, the film would be better off as a work of nonfiction, closer to Messrs. Epstein and Friedman's bailiwick.

The animation segments attempt to re-imagine visions seen through the mind's eye of Ginsberg, but they turn out to be literal translations of verses from the poem. While a documentary film can get away with such, the device seems off-the-charts amateurish in a film that features talents such as Mr. Franco, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels and A-list cinematographer Ed Lachman. These names warrant a vision as grandiose as Mr. Cronenberg's. Unfortunately, the insipid animation cheapens the film in a way that recalls Richard Robbins's documentary "Operation Homecoming," which unwittingly trivialized the earnest frontline experiences of veterans who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Still, the biggest problem with "Howl" is the fact that none of its parallel narratives build to much of a climax. The scenes from the Six Gallery reading prove most effective thanks to Mr. Franco's impassioned recital. The courtroom drama, though, is a golden opportunity wasted primarily due to Jon Hamm's wooden turn as the defense attorney.


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