Howl (15)

Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn
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The Independent Culture

There are ways to put poetry on the screen, but this drama-documentary about the Beat versifier Allen Ginsberg fails to find them.

James Franco plays the poet in his late-1950s heyday, seen pecking away at a typewriter, being interviewed for a magazine or reciting his antic and hallucinatory poem "Howl" before an appreciative crowd in a smoky jazz club. Interspersed with this are scenes from the 1957 courtroom trial of Ginsberg's publisher on charges of obscenity, which underuse the talents of Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams.

The latter, offering a defence of "Howl", says, "You can't translate poetry into prose; that's why it's poetry" – a line that might have given the film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman pause for thought. Their animated approximation of the poem itself is busy but unilluminating, and to those unfamiliar with Ginsberg (like me) the imagery sounds like Tom Waits without the wit, or the music. The film's sincerity is beyond doubt, but that's not much use to anyone, converted or otherwise.