I am hard-pressed to recall a recent movie I've thought more about before viewing, than Howl, Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s first major foray into non-documentary filmmaking. The film centers on the public and private life of poet Allen Ginsberg and the 1957 obscenity trial over the publication of Howl and Other Poems. The bold decision to name the movie after the poem, the writer/directors’ history of focusing on gay-related themes in American society, and the cultural clout of Ginsberg and his ever-controversial poem all made for a considerable amount of material to consider before showtime.
The result was a somewhat predictable, yet extremely efficient, exploration of brief portions of Ginsberg’s life and the obscenity trial that can hardly be placed in the now-stale category of “biopic.” Split into roughly three sections, the two which focus on Ginsberg and the work itself are undoubtedly the strongest. The first section takes Ginsberg the man as its subject, with James Franco providing an extremely sentimental and subdued performance based on actual taped interviews of Ginsberg. Epstein and Friedman retain the interview-style format, with most of Franco’s dialogue being directed to an unseen interviewer behind the camera.
Within this narrative line come scenes which fictionalize and dramatize Ginsberg’s reflections (showing him interacting with other prominent Beat artists, lovers of both sexes, etc.), but which always return to Franco sitting on a couch, smoking a cigarette, and answering questions into a recorder. The use of this overall interview-style structure helps rescue the movie from trivial biography and allows Franco to ground his characterization of Ginsberg in a concrete time and place. This place is one of reflection, and despite some jubilant moments, the remembrances of Franco’s Ginsberg (which ostensibly take place during the obscenity trial) are almost always tinged with the hint of futile longing and subdued pain.
The second section would have benefited from a similar technique of restraint and subtlety, but the thoughtful substance which it lacks is at times skillfully replaced with fascinatingly severe and extreme images. This portion, derived largely from Ginsberg’s oral debut of “Howl” (known as the Six Gallery Reading), with corresponding animation, constitutes a strange attempt at an “adaptation.” Again, the film benefits greatly from the decision to ground these portions in Ginsberg’s reading at the Six Gallery, rendering the hallucinatory and imaginative portrayal of Ginsberg’s words comprehensible in context.
The animation itself stays true to Ginsberg’s graphic and uncompromised image of a devastatingly overbearing society, yet it was also one of the first places in the film where the predictability of the subject matter shone through. The images presented are the ones for which “Howl” is famous: drug addicts ignored by society and left to rot, triumphant sex between men and women amongst landscapes constructed out of genitals, and the socio-industrial monster Moloch, who seeks to squash any perversion from social conformity. It is visually engaging at all times, but rarely does it deviate from the imagery already present in the poem.
Still, these scenes have the virtue of being consistently engrossing, even on an instinctual level, something which the film’s third part, the portrayal of the obscenity trial between the state and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sorely lacked. Headed by Jon Hamm as Ferlinghetti’s attorney and David Straitairn as the prosecutor, one would think that this portion could produce a Law and Order, or at least a Judge Joe Brown, level of courtroom drama and intrigue. Instead, we get a markedly dull parade of figures who either applaud or denounce the poem, a lineup not helped in any way by glints of contemporary star power.
The idiocy of putting the literary worth of any work on trial is extremely well-wrought, with witnesses consistently fumbling over themselves as they try to pinpoint the meaning and worth of passages in “Howl.” Perhaps the filmmakers would concede my criticisms and still consider their job an undeniable success. After the ridiculousness of the court has been realized, however, the march of witnesses continues ad nauseam and only boredom ensues. Hamm’s uninspired closing speech denouncing censorship puts the kibosh on the ordeal, but not before delivering a one-liner of David Caruso proportions (don’ t want to ruin the surprise here, but you’ll know it when you hear it).
All three of these sections are scattered throughout the movie, creating a sort of three-way collage rather than a straight triptych. To denounce the whole film based on the weakness of one of these sections would be unfair: Despite the shortcomings of the trial scenes, the other two-thirds are more than enough to carry the drama of Ginsberg’ s life and work through to the end of the movie. And while the refined tone of the movie died in those court scenes, the ambiguous and chaotic relationship Ginsberg had with his work, and with society as a whole, shines through with complexity and drama for the majority of the film.