2010, NR, 90 min. Directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Starring James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 12, 2010
Although never anything less than ambitious, Howl fails to satisfy in a number of ways. This film about Allen Ginsberg’s first published poem, “Howl,” strives toward (and sometimes achieves) a kind of poetry analysis on film and attempts to explain why “Howl,” more than 50 years after its publication in 1956, remains Ginsberg’s most enduring and influential contribution to the arts. The film uses strategies of the biopic, documentary, courtroom drama, animated extrapolation, and live poetry reading to render the story without ever committing itself to any one avenue of approach. All have their place (except the way-too-literal animated segments by Eric Drooker that sometimes threaten to sunder the whole project with their laughable literalism), but most effective of all is the casting of Franco as the young Ginsberg. Though more handsome than Ginsberg, Franco manages to capture the poet’s physical appearance and vocal intonations, elevating scenes that might have been prosaic into something more profound. Still, this is a movie about a poem rather than its author, a poem whose sensibilities bespeak both the Beat logorrhea and Whitman-esque exaltation of the natural world. Additionally, there is the poem’s unadulterated expression of homosexual desire, which is largely to blame for the obscenity charges brought against its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. The film depicts the trial, with opposing lawyers played by Strathairn and Hamm, who try the case in front of Balaban’s judge. Academic witnesses played by Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, and Jeff Daniels testify before the court. These scenes are interspersed with explanatory passages taken from a lengthy magazine interview Ginsberg gave in 1957, along with scenes of Ginsberg writing and reading the poem aloud and black-and-white flashbacks to moments in the past spent with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky – men who all, in their way, inspired Ginsberg’s lust. None of them has any dialogue, nor does defendant Ferlinghetti. All the dialogue spoken in the film comes directly from court transcripts and that magazine interview, and, though truthful, the film often becomes dangerously static. Howl is a must-see for Beat freaks and poetry geeks but might not be an enriching experience for newcomers to Ginsberg.