Intelligent and highly respectful of its central character and his titular landmark poem, “HOWL” is an admirable if fundamentally academic exploration of the origins, impact, meaning and legacy of Allen Ginsberg’s signal work. It is also an intriguing hybrid of documentary, narrative and animated filmmaking, one that needed to burst through the constraints of its conceptual origins as a docu to express everything on its mind. Adventurous but tidily formalized picture will attract a certain following among intellectual and gay audiences, but by nature it’s a rarefied project for a relatively narrow target audience.
That said, how many remotely commercial films have ever had the nerve to build themselves around core sequences consisting of long swaths of poetry being read to eager listeners, whose rapturous reactions are recorded in enthusiastic detail? So it is here, as vet documakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman anchor this searching work with the 29-year-old Ginsberg (James Franco) getting up in front of a beatnik crowd at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955 to read “HOWL” for the first time. Even if the shock that Ginsberg’s bluntly sexual and provocative words carried then can’t possibly be felt the same way 55 years later, anyone who revels in the pure pleasure of the spoken word will receive rare gratification here.
To examine the impulses that caused the words to be written, the filmmakers expand their work fourfold: first, with excerpts from a far-ranging verite-style “interview” with Ginsberg (with text drawn from assorted actual interviews the writer gave over the years); second, with elaborate animated sequences by former Ginsberg illustrator Eric Drooker that attempt, with varying success, to translate words into moving pictures; third, with a dramatic re-creation of the 1957 trial in which the prosecution attempted to outlaw the book by having it adjudged obscene and without redeeming artistic merit; and fourth, with renditions of key moments from the youthful Ginsberg’s life, notably his interactions, carnal and otherwise, with such Beat Generation superstars as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Ginsberg’s longtime mate, Peter Orlovsky.
In the interview, Ginsberg admits, among many other things, to his fear of his teacher-poet father’s reaction to his work; his mother’s madness; his sexual infatuations; his psychiatry-inspired breakthrough to live a fully honest, unconstrained life; and his view that “HOWL” was not, as some perceived, a promotion of the merits of homosexuality but at its heart an argument for “frankness about any subject.” It’s in these thoughtful, off-the-cuff interludes that Franco can come closest to fully inhabiting Ginsberg, which he does with great credibility; despite doubts going in about how plausible the handsome actor would be as the poet much more familiar from his later life as looking plump, balding and unkempt, it’s a good fit in the end, physically and vocally.
The trial, cleanly and brightly rendered, is played without histrionics and with particular attention to how uncomfortable and clueless the prosecutor (David Strathairn) is with the substance of the text he’s sometimes forced to recite in court. A parade of name thesps (Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola) comes on to portray expert witnesses, while Jon Hamm, without having to much change his period look from “Mad Men,” plays the defense attorney who ably steers the case being heard by a conservative, fair-minded judge (Bob Balaban).
Snippets from Ginsberg’s intimate moments with his literary cohorts, as well as from his attempt to live a “straight” life, are little more than that, silent and fleeting black-and-white memories of loves yearned for, lusts consummated or not and acceptance found. There was certainly much more in Ginsberg’s past that informed “HOWL” but is not shown here, particularly the more sordid aspects; this honorific treatment stands as the diametric opposite of the sensationalistic sort of biopic Ken Russell would have made had he been drawn to the subject.
But therein lies the rub. Russell’s films, good and bad, had blood coursing through their veins, whereas this one, while clearly motivated to celebrate the life force embodied by Ginsberg and his work, is itself wood-dry. It’s a paradox born of the film’s fundamentally informational and historical perspective, one viewers will just have to live with.
Resourcefully made on a modest budget, the picture boasts top craft contributions from lenser Edward Lachman, production designer Therese DePrez and composer Carter Burwell, whose melodic, jazzy backgrounding mixes well with a number of period tunes.