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Review: Howl

Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K

James Franco’s Allen Ginsberg holds down the center of this serviceable film about the beat writers.

ImageRob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s new film, Howl is the best Beat Generation themed movie I’ve seen in a while. I realize this isn’t saying a whole lot. The Last Time I Committed Suicide got its history all wrong and Beat starred Courtney Love, among other flaws. The Beats wrote expansive, labyrinthine novels and poems and lived lives of nonstop Benzedrine-fueled adventure. Small wonder that it’s so hard to capture their essences on film. It’s beyond difficult to squeeze such enigmatic personalities and literature into 90-120 minutes. 

In Howl, Epstein and Friedman try not to take on too much. Instead, they focus on a single work and a single writer and stay within a limited time frame. The time is the late fifties. The poem, of course, is “Howl” and the writer is Allen Ginsberg.

James Franco plays Ginsberg. I can’t recall right away seeing too many of his films, but just from watching this one, he strikes me as a very talented actor. I mean, he just totally inhabits the role of Ginsberg. Or, more precisely, he is able to channel Ginsberg perfectly, as if possessed. Which seems like a strange thing to say since Franco doesn’t look anything like the guy. The real Ginsberg was a scruffy, nerdy sort. He was awkward looking and starting to get a little pudgy at the time his book, Howl and Other Poems was published. Franco is, well, I guess “buff” is the right word. A solid looking dude. Way too pretty to be a convincing Ginsberg. And yet he captures everything important about Ginsberg, from his gleeful smile to his nervous ticks to the radiant innocence of his face. Damn. It was a fucking treat to watch that beautiful lad.

But the problem is that Franco really has the only human role in the thing. Unless you count the poem itself, because, in a way, the film is the poem, a living entity. Even Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, two major Beat figures and people who influenced Ginsberg’s writing of “Howl,” never move beyond caricatures. I’d like to think that this was done so that Ginsberg and his poem remained the focus of the film and were never overshadowed by the other performances. Well, that’s what I’d like to think.

Structurally, the film is divided into self-contained sequences, each containing its own narrative. They could all stand alone as short films. The sequences are cut up and mixed throughout the movie and we only see a few minutes or so of a particular sequence before switching to another.

The sequence I enjoyed most was the one where Ginsberg was being interviewed in his apartment, probably because it was a solo performance of sorts, with the reporter always off camera, rarely even heard asking a question. The sequence is a confession, an intense near-monologue. Franco talks about the poem, its history and the people who influenced it. He fidgets in a chair or lays on his couch as if he’s in a psychiatrist’s office. There’s genuine music in Franco-as-Ginsberg’s voice as he talks about Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon and his mother, all personalities who contribute to the poem’s stream of consciousness narrative. At one point, he talks about the disconnect between poetry and everyday language. How we confess things to our friends that we’d never admit to in print. “Howl” was, above all, a confession of a man’s inner monologue, his secret desires and his fantasies, all told in blunt, surreal language. It is the frankness of the poem, specifically its discussions of homosexuality, drug use and insanity that got its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, taken to court on obscenity charges. But Franco-as-Ginsberg admits near the end of the film, the poem wasn’t specifically about homosexuality. The frankness of the language was used as a way to challenge boundaries, to lead the way to a totally confessional and honest style of poetry. This is the crux of the argument. Afterward, I was sure that, for this reason at the very least, “Howl” was an incredibly important poem. Whether or not it’s important as literature, history will have to decide. But its historical importance is undeniable, because the poem, along with other books like Lolita, Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer, completely obliterated any boundaries that artists had previously faced. From then until now, anything that could be thought could be written and anything written could be published and read.

Honestly, I think they could have made an entire movie of the interview sequences. Maybe expand some of the flashbacks. Or maybe not. Why not a movie about an extremely interesting person who just talks about his work? I’m sure something like this must have been done before.

The animation sequence I could take or leave. Going in, I really wanted to like it, since this was the part most reviewers seemed to dislike. Fuck, ’em, right? But, no, I think most of them were right. The animation was all computer generated, like most cartoons these days. I can dig computer animation that’s partly hand-drawn, but total CG animation just looks too robotic for my tastes. And I guess this works pretty well if you’re animating, well, robots or something. Or toys. But I get taken out of the movie when the supposedly human characters move so mechanically. You can tell the animators tried their best to make the whole thing look organic, with human characters liquefying and turning into other objects and suchlike but there just wasn’t enough fluidity in the movements for it to be effective. I think of the animated sequences in The Wall and how it looked so organic and how these animations look so completely hollow in comparison. Which is too bad, because there were some pretty good ideas. For instance, I really liked the concept behind the part where a shirtless man embraces another from behind and then leans in and the other guy arches forward and it looks as if they’re about to have sex but–at the last moment the camera pulls back to reveal that they’re on a motorcycle, moving down an empty road, ready for the unknown. Surreal as the images were, it was strange I wanted them to feel more “real.” Luckily, though, we do get to enjoy Franco’s voice again, as the reads the poem in voice over.

I had a strange reaction to the courtroom sequence. For some reason, it rang flat. It all came off a collection of stereotypes like “cocky liberal lawyer” and “prudish librarian type” arguing with each other. I was surprised to find out that every word was taken from the actual courtroom transcripts. Maybe people really were that laughably one dimensional back then. Maybe the actors just weren’t able to deliver the material in a convincing way. Maybe both. But it felt like a bad episode of Law and Order or some such TV courtroom show.

I think that the movie could have done without the courtroom sequences entirely. We already know how it will end, even if we don’t know anything about literary history. The times ‘a changin’ and all that.

Let me stop here. I don’t want to seem too down on this movie. It was a fun way to kill an hour and a half. And watching James Franco as Allen Ginsberg was enough to make the film a worthwhile experience for me. Plus, I went into this thing with a lot of baggage. I already knew a good bit about the Beats, especially their early period. You might get more out of it if you’re unfamiliar with the period. This is Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s first feature film. They’ve previously only made documentaries. As a result, they really focus on getting the facts right. I didn’t notice any inaccuracies. Ultimately, though, the idea behind the film is good, but it’s poorly executed. The filmmakers don’t quite live up to their own vision.