Howl is a quasi-documentary with an impressive group of actors centering on Allen Ginsberg and the four-part poem of social protest the Beat Generation guru published in 1955, which led to a celebrated obscenity trial in 1957. Now there’s a subject destined to draw millions to the cineplex. I wanted to see it for all the extraordinary talents involved: James Franco, who looks absolutely nothing like the yeasty, hirsute, Jewish beat poet Ginsberg; Jon (Mad Men) Hamm as his defense attorney; David Strathairn as the prosecutor in high moral dudgeon; and Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels as various scholars, critics and other experts who were called as witnesses to determine the literary value of the poem. They are all fine, but their roles amount to nothing more than walk-ons. Still, even though I have less interest in ’50s beatniks than I do in ’50s songs by Bill Haley and the Comets, I found Howl a fascinating and imaginative evocation of mid-20th-century liberation, a mere and merciful 90 minutes long.
This is not surprising, since Howl is the work of award-winning documentary directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, two exemplary filmmakers whose work includes The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet. They wanted to base Howl on court records of the trial and interviews with surviving participants, but found their research too inconsequential to sustain a feature-length narrative (especially since nothing earth-shaking ever happened). Unable to find an acceptable form to distill the essence of Ginsberg’s life and work, they eventually discarded the idea of a conventional biography and divided the film into three parts–the spiritual awakening of the poet himself, revealed in a long interview with an unseen reporter; the obscenity trial; and the text of the poem, illustrated through the imagery of computer-generated animation. There is also a sketchy chronicle of familiar events in the life of the Newark-born poet (drugs, gay sex in public parks and baths, jazz, LSD, political protest, American social injustice, road trips, porno movies) that led to the literary baptismal fount he called Howl and dedicated to two of his unrequited lovers, Jack Kerouac and bisexual car thief Neal Cassady. Kerouac, who was also his idol, regarded Ginsberg’s writing the same way he treated the confession that he was gay–with unshockable indifference–yet it inspired him to finish his own seminal work, On the Road, the same year. Searching for truth in the social cesspool of the ’50s, Ginsberg was arrested often and did time in a psychiatric asylum where he avoided electro-shock treatments by promising to go heterosexual. His mother was in and out of loony bins from the time he was 6. At 21, he had to sign papers for her lobotomy. No wonder his confusion led to so much rage in the kind of rambling poems whose style, language and rhetoric were viciously denounced by academics. Undaunted, he remained forever mischievous and an outspoken defender of the gay rights movement. (He was once thrown out of Cuba for calling Castro “cute.”) We are told his work still sells, but when was the last time you saw someone on the subway reading a poem by Allen Ginsberg? The other beatniks disappeared young, but Ginsberg lived until 1997, when he died of liver cancer in Greenwich Village with his longtime lover Peter Orlovsky at his side. He was 70.
There is no defining story of lasting importance here, so the directors opted for a small narrative, a lot of drawings and snippets of the trial. It’s filled with graphics, but doesn’t really amount to much of a film or an illumination of the man’s life. Colorful portions of the poem, delivered in public readings by James Franco, still resonate, but nobody cares much about beatniks like Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg anymore–once celebrated as crude and fearless watchdogs of sexual freedom, now mostly forgotten footnotes to the poetry of changing times. The courtroom scenes lack power, and since the public transcripts are only peripherally acknowledged, we don’t know what effect the trial had on the outside world. Howl was a milestone in freedom of expression at a time of great homophobia and censorship, but why it had more of an impact on First Amendment rights than Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass remains puzzling.
I guess I have mixed feelings about the film, but not James Franco. Actor, writer, poet, rock musician, sometime soap opera regular and perennial graduate student, he never conforms to what society expects him to be and marches to the sound of his own drum. In Howl, he adds another vital character to his growing portrait gallery, but he is mostly shown hunched over a typewriter in a white T-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses. Better you should wait for him in 127 Hours, in which he plays a hiker who falls through a crevice in a Utah canyon pinned under a boulder and forced to amputate his own arm. Now that’s a performance you won’t forget.
Running time 90 minutes
Written and Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams