Directed By: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Jon Hamm, Mary-Lousie Parker, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola
Lacking an appreciation for poetry? No, I’m not talking about Shel Silverstein-type childhood favorites; I’m referring to the serious stuff, specifically, Allen Ginsberg’s work. If the answer is no, Howl certainly isn’t for you. Not that a moviegoer must like the person, the event or the subject a factual film focuses on, but Howl is so difficult to enjoy as it is that if you don’t find entertainment in slam poetry, the film is a guaranteed lost cause.
James Franco stars as Ginsberg, the author of the poem “Howl.” The poem is broken up into the three parts, the first of which Ginsberg developed using his own experiences as well as those of people he met during his younger years. In the second part, the poet introduces the reader to Moloch, a being used to represent capitalism. Part three is directed towards a man Ginsberg met during his stay at a psychiatric hospital, Carl Solomon.
Scattered through the material is a whole lot of 1950’s no-nos, profanity and sex talk. This led to the prosecution of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), the owner of City Lights Bookstore and the man who agreed to publish “Howl.” He was arrested and charged with selling obscene material. The proceedings were highly publicized and packed with literature experts on each side, but in the end, Ginsberg won out and the judge deemed his work acceptable.
Yes, the story of “Howl” and Ginsberg is monumental in the world of literature, but that doesn’t mean it’ll make a good movie. Actually, perhaps it would have, had writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman not turned it into some experimental tornado. Ginsberg’s accomplishmentes must have gotten to their heads because like Ginsberg, Epstein and Friedman attempt to push the boundaries of filmmaking. However, unlike Ginsberg, their attempt fails miserably.
Howl’s poor quality has absolutely nothing to do with the cast. Franco makes for a fine lead throughout while Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels and Jon Hamm do an adequate job in the courtroom scenes. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to appreciate their work because the material they’re working with is so poorly constructed.
Epstein and Friedman opted to go with five different points of view or tracks. First there’s Franco reenacting Ginsberg’s performance of the poem in 1955, then there’s an odd representation of parts of the poem through animation as well the events of the trial during which parts of the poem were discussed. On top of that, we’ve also got Franco as Ginsberg participating in a documentary-like interview and some black and white depictions of his past. Take all five items, mush them together and then attempt to lay the messy results out flat and that’s Howl.
Perhaps this format would have worked had the subject matter not been a particularly complex piece of work, one that opens college students and professors to hours worth of analyzing and discussion. There’s way too much information to keep up with and when you aren’t familiar with the poem itself, Franco’s reading comes across as gibberish and then that bleeds into all of the other portions of the film. If you don’t understand Franco’s recitation, you’re not going to get the animated portions nor fully understand the arguments in the trial. As for the 1955 reading, that might as well be in another language entirely.
The killer is that Howl goes nowhere. The unusual stylistic choices are easily digestible at first, but when the same sequence of events appears to be on a continuous loop, patience wears thin. The story of Ginsberg and his poem has a lot to say, but Epstein and Friedman were so busy jazzing it up, they must have forgotten to wholly represent the main issues and portray them in a sensible manner. There’s censorship, gay rights, Ginsberg’s personal life and more, but all are reduced to meaningless secondary elements in the writing-directing duo’s desperation to do something different. The Wikipedia article on “Howl” is far more entertaining than the film.
By Perri Nemiroff