Details: 2010, USA, Cert 15, 84 mins, Drama/Period, Dir: Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein

Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels

That the Beats saw poetry as ejaculatory male self-expression is a not at all unsubtle idea. Sex runs through every vein of their literature, with all corresponding imagery. This film pulls off the connotations with animated sequences of trains running up mountain legs, in phallic landscapes and shooting fireworks. That the imagery is so obvious may be due to the backgrounds of the directors.

This is their first feature film, written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, documentary-makers who collaborated on the Academy award-winning Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. It centres on Howl, the infamous poem penned by Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), who was a senior member of the jazz and words-obsessed Beat Generation. The poem sparked controversy for its drugs and sexual references and was brought to an obscenity trial.

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg

The film flits between three parts: from an interview in New York, to the court-room drama of the trial in 1957 San Francisco, to Ginsberg typing the poem with hallucinatory animation. It all changes from B&W to colour for each segment – it’s not as confusing as it sounds, and the whole thing continually returns to the opening scene, the poem’s debut Six Gallery reading, and as it progresses we get to hear Howl in its entirety.

The film’s tone is hushed and reverent, the camera sitting still to absorb all the wisdom dispensed in the poet’s interview. The script takes us through Ginsberg’s ideas and philosophies, all delivered with arrow-straight emotion by Franco. His depiction is considered, thoughtful, soft and earnest, which has truth, but the restraint can be too much. Franco doesn’t have the necessary weight, both literal and figurative, for a character so mired in intensity.

Elsewhere Mad Men’s Jon Hamm is oddly stiff as defense attorney Jake Erlich, while it was great to see Jeff Daniels as a clueless English professor. We don’t see much of Jack Keroauc (Todd Rotondi) or Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), the former the biggest inspiration to Ginsberg. It helps to keep focus on the studious beardyman but it left a void of wild adventure and craziness, characteristics central to the Beats.

It’s a nice film to look at, the cinematographer Edward Lachman has given the movie a modern mid-tone B&W, which thankfully doesn’t add any nostalgia, and the colours of the courtroom are green and warm like a gust of summer. But it all feels a little lightweight, even the animated sequences, which I thought were going to be a blast, stay faithful to its era. We get images of wombs, ghosts, skeletons and angels, all rendered in an art deco style. They’re flat and unimaginative.

Some simple sentences do resonate. The prosecuting attorney (a suitably strung-out David Straitharn) asks:

“What are angel-headed hipsters?”

“You can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry”, comes the reply from the literary critic.

And Franco wrings great depth from the line, “Promised I was heterosexual and that’s how I got out”, when he talks about his time spent at the mental hospital with the writer Carl Solomon, to whom Howl is dedicated.

With the cross-examination of various English professors and ‘experts’ in court, we get differing views on what defines literature. It offers a handy breakdown on technical and thematic aspects of Howl, which may delight or bore you. My feeling is the poem gave voice to a massive generation change, turning into epic the feelings of a repressed clique, and ultimately of a gay man.

Allen Ginsberg (right) with (from left) fellow Beat luminaries Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso (back to camera) and David Amram, New York, late 1950s

Jack Keroac’s On the Road, with its dizzying sentences and breaths of untrammelled optimism, and Ginsberg’s free verse allowed the Beats to express their joy at all the opportunity and ecstatic freedom that jazz, drugs and uninhibited sex gave them, in an un-liberated time. But this structure of fixated desire, so attuned to the flow of words, left them indeed devoid of any “moral greatness”.

But the film does hint that sex is much art’s undercurrent, with a lovely shot of Cezanne’s La Montagne Saint in colour, while surrounded by B&W. And Howl itself of course, partly helped by the obscenity trial (alluded to in court), like all obscenity trials, helped to draw attention to social norms of frankness and honesty.

Perhaps the poem’s need to provoke and its outpouring of emotion and gushing rhythm could have come from no other man as Ginsberg. He was repressed after all and an obviously sensitive soul. We see this at the film’s end, with a clamorous, though rather reverent scene of the poem’s footnote. Franco reads with fervour and ends with tones of compassion on the final line:

“Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
kindness of the soul!”

I only saw glimpses of this in the film, and people who knew him testified to his gleeful generosity. But the film is a monument to Howl, not its author. And I got a clear handle of the poem’s power as spoken word but all the realities of life, social upheaval, Ginsberg’s relationships and clouds of darkness were missing or only there in stolen snatches.

I gained knowledge such as that an English Lit seminar could have given me, but the acting, the very textural quality of the film gave me little clue as to the context in which Howl was created. It was more strait-laced then I imagined it would be, a route that can reveal better insight, but overall the film does not engage emotionally, its analysis is too dry and cumbersome.

Some greater narrative must match Howl’s riveting, bopping, long lines of thrill and change.



2 Responses to “Howl”

  1. 1 alan March 31, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    i just saw Howl on dvd, and i had to speed through it, especially during the animations. Your review really expressed some of my own thoughts on it, and I thought handsome Mr Franco was not deep enough somehow, for Ginsberg, who if you are familiar with film clips of him in interviews and so forth, you always see a undefinable depth in those eyes behind the thick glasses. Franco was good but he just didn’t get that far. I wonder who could have? As you said, this was about Howl and maybe one day, there’ll be that definitve film about Ginsberg

    • 2 orangelegfilms April 1, 2011 at 1:37 am

      Thank you, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Yeah the animations, which I was looking forward to, were a real let down. Perhaps someone like Kevin Spacey could have enough depth to play Ginsberg, what do you think? De Niro maybe, some real hardcore method man. Do you have a blog, where are you from? Cannot wait for the On the Road adaptation.

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