It’s not often that one medium of artful expression can get me so excited about another one but Howl managed to do just that. This is, perhaps, the film’s best, and most delightful trait. The words of Allen Ginsberg are turned into a vibrant world of self-expression, and not just lines in a book with no countenance of their own to speak of.
James Franco is Allen Ginsberg. The film is directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who also wrote the film. Although ‘wrote’ may be misleading since the actual words heard in the film are from the poem Howl itself, and from the transcription of the obscenity trial the poem’s candid lexicon caused. The publisher who picked up Howl was facing real time behind bars for publishing what some considered obscenity. Also, vast portions come from an extremely long interview Ginsberg gave after the fame of his poetry became apparent.
Having only read the poem once, long ago, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Although the verbal imagery I remember prepared me for lots of thinly veiled euphemisms about homosexual sexual practices. But the words that I heard this time took on a new meaning; they’re exciting when they’re heard out loud. So much so, that those actors playing characters in the film that are for the censorship of Ginsberg come across as laughable and ignornant. These poor characters are played by the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and David Strathairn. Though it is only passing time that has exposed their close-mindedness; it is not a reflection of the script, or the acting itself.
It’s fun listening to Ginsberg’s own words, explaining how Howl resulted out of his experiences and relationships (like a sexually-charged bond with Jack Kerouac). Because so many of the names mentioned have become iconic American figures, it mildly reminded me of reading A Moveable Feast, recounting the tales of other famous, talented people mingling with the likes. And it’s great. It’s a solid film that’s informative and compelling.
The film’s one major misstep is cutting away to a series of cartoon sequences. The sequences are contributed by the graphic artist Eric Drooker. And although they may exhibit some merit own their own, they cheapen the poem, and the film itself. At one point, a forest of erect penises appear and erupt in fireworks display of white sparks. It’s the literal interpretation of the prose, and it shouldn’t have been done. That’s why poetry has its own place in the art world. It portrays something that can’t otherwise be captured.
Nevertheless, these weakness can be forgiven, and watching Franco as Ginsberg is a delight. Hearing is words is even more pleasurable. And the result is immeasurably greater than the sum of its parts.
Howl is invigoratingly fresh. It has compelling filmmaking, a great script and tremendous acting from all involved.