Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010)

26Feb11

James Franco (Allen Ginsberg), David Strathairn (Ralph McIntosh). Screenplay by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Rating: 15. Running time: 84 minutes.

‘… who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.’ Poetry, obscenity, or both? Howl might still be provocative today, but imagining the stir it must have caused in 1950s America is near impossible. Allen Ginsberg undoubtedly paved the way for the sexual and emotional openness that would reach its peaks in the liberating rock and roll of the 60s. Not for a second does the desire to make a film about him thus need justifying: here is the opportunity for an important, richly layered story, and the potential was high to bring Ginsberg’s poetry to life and delve into his own adventures, whilst simultaneously exposing the absurdity of the obscenity trial which attempted to ban his work. Unfortunately, Howl the film largely ditches the second goal it could have strived for: it is not particularly interested in giving us a lengthy look at the man behind the words. Perhaps we will have to wait for the forthcoming film adaptation of On The Road to get such a glimpse of the Beats actually living. Instead, the filmmakers have opted to swap this saved time for a handful of brave, animated sequences attempting to visually complement the poem. And yet again, unfortunately, I’m not convinced that this daring choice was a wise one. The poem’s intentions are too cryptic to be subjected to the images of one person’s conception of the meaning they convey.

The film’s strengths instead lie elsewhere: Franco, as Ginsberg, radiates hipness, and he more than makes up for the agony of watching him in 127 Hours by coming across as wonderfully warm here. The reenacted interviews have some great and illuminating lines, but are nothing without the additional footage of him reciting Howl in a Greenwich Village café to a smoke-filled room of entranced onlookers. And in turn, this would not work so well if not intersected with footage of the courtroom drama unfolding. The film is quick and clever to recognise the irony of observing a literary professor arrogantly deriding the poem’s aesthetic value, as inferred from his so-called ‘objective criteria,’ then contrasted with Ginsberg’s rapturous, joyful performance of his poem spilling off his tongue, all listeners clearly feeling perfectly in tune with what he is saying. It’s great to watch conservatives try and defend their prejudices in the public forum of a court because one knows from the outset no good reasons can be given for assuming you’re in a position to judge what’s worthless and dangerous. Some autocrats might have trouble letting this film into their countries in light of the defending lawyer’s closing speech against the perils of censorship. It’s testament to America that even its lawyers could see the light on this point even before the time of Harvey Milk, and thus within a culture dominated by homophobia.

Ultimately, mixed feelings seem inevitable: it’s hard to know how to deal with the combination of a film with amazing subject matter that is perfect in parts, but which also has aspects which simply fail to meet the mark. Howl is both fantastic in its gentle portrayal of genius and also somehow severely lacking. The solution, I suppose, is to focus on its virtues, which largely means appreciating its messages and ultra-cool lead actor.

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