James Franco’s performance as Allen Ginsberg grounds a film about the Beat poem “Howl.”
Thursday, October 21, 2010
A hallucinatory three part epic poem haunted by images of “angelheaded hipsters” and graphic homosexual acts, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” broke some of poetry’s established conventions when it was published in 1956. Inspired by the poem, which is the most popular poetic work of the Beat Generation, Howl is a fragmented and experimental film directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman that evokes the spirit of its source material by not conforming to the expectations of a typical Hollywood biopic.
Instead it instinctually moves between different sections that include an early reading of the poem, a literal adaptation of “Howl”’s words using computer animation, a recreated 1957 interview in which Ginsberg waxes poetic about the creation of his masterpiece, and a courtroom drama re-enacting the poem’s obscenity trial in San Francisco that same year.
The animated segment includes fire-spewing saxophones and cityscapes littered with dark jagged buildings that look like rotting teeth, along with trees and roadways that transform into phallic symbols. Unfortunately, the computer-generated figures in the sequences resemble the chiseled characters of the 2008 animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Meanwhile, the poetry reading scenes find Ginsberg (James Franco) unveiling his legendary poem to a nodding, wine jug swilling room of hipsters that includes Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy.
During the courtroom scenes, prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (the dependable David Strathairn) and defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) debate the merits of the poem like graduate students in a literary criticism seminar. McIntosh is attempting to prove that “Howl” is “utterly without redeeming social importance” during the 1957 obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Booksellers published the work. (I wouldn’t have believed that the trial’s lawyers referenced Voltaire’s Candide and asked questions like “What creates literature?” if the film didn’t note that its information is partially culled from court records.)
Both McIntosh and Ehrlich question a parade of expert witnesses including stodgy Dominican College English instructor Gail Potter (Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker) and University of San Francisco English professor David Kirk (Jeff Daniels). Daniels is particularly good as an academic who calls “Howl” a weak imitation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass before getting himself stuck in a quicksand of ideas. It recalls his Golden Globe-nominated turn as a condescending writer in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale.
Howl’s interview scenes, which feature Ginsberg talking to an unseen interviewer within a New York City apartment, provide some of the film’s best and most revealing moments. In them, Franco, who won a Golden Globe for his performance as teen heartthrob James Dean in a 2001 made-for-TV movie, effectively transforms himself into the bearded, gesticulating intellectual.
During the segments, which are filmed in color as opposed to the black and white poetry reading scenes, Ginsberg talks about the process of writing poetry and what influenced the making of his masterpiece.
“The poetry generally is a rhythmic articulation of a feeling, and the feeling is an impulse that begins inside like a sexual impulse,” he says.
Ginsberg also describes being liberated to write anything he wanted within “Howl,” because his father would not be able to read it since the poet assumed the poem would never be published.
For casual fans of the poem, the film shows that the epic work came about when Ginsberg realized he had to embrace his identity, including his homosexuality, while writing. He says in one scene that the best writing is “to approach your muse as frankly as you would talk to yourself or your friends.”
“It’s the ability to commit to writing,” Franco as Ginsberg continues. “To write the same way that you are.”
In the end, it’s unlikely that Howl will make much of an impression at the box office. But this small, well-acted idiosyncratic film is sure to be viewed for years to come by scholars of the Beat Generation and aspiring writers who hope to someday unleash a work that shakes the literary world like Ginsberg’s “Howl” once did.