Howl (2010) – DVD review
An unusual biopic of Allen Ginsberg’s infamous poem, starring James Franco. Released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 27th June by Soda Pictures.
(Rob Epstein / Jeffrey Friedman, US, 2010)
The movie equivalent of a full moon, as Ginsberg’s poem transforms into a were-film that is part legal drama, part animation and part lit-crit essay
At a critical moment during Howl, a literary critic – being cross-examined about the merits of Allen Ginsberg’s titular poem during an obscenity trial – points out that it’s churlish to question the meaning of poetry because it can’t be translated to prose. That’s why it’s poetry. The question hangs over this film itself: can poetry be translated to cinema? The strength and weakness of Epstein and Friedman’s movie is that they don’t seem to be sure, either.
The directors are documentarians, responsible for the ace, comprehensive study of gay Hollywood, The Celluloid Closet. The same themes of homosexuality, bigotry and censorship in the mid-20th century art resurface here, but the form is totally different. It’s a biopic, but one drawn from court records and transcripts of an interview with Ginsberg – and, of course, a huge amount is simply the poem itself being recited.
The net result is to make a film is as fragmented and as intuitive as Ginsberg’s own writing, but of course it doesn’t – it can’t – work like that, because the film is recreating rather than originating. Ironically, this debate is raised during the film itself, and the film is slyly self-mocking about its own position. The gulf is most obvious in the animation that accompanies the poetry recital: a fluid stream-of-consciousness that finds visual corollaries for the language (sometimes literal, sometimes fanciful), but which you’re constantly aware that it was painstakingly designed and rendered, over time, by a team of animators, rather than a nerdy poet typing at a desk.
“Howl is often like watching an illustrated university lecture…”
Elsewhere, it veers between James Franco-as-Ginsberg re-enacting a talking head interview, and a conventional recreation of the trial with Jon Hamm and David Stathairn (forever typecast as post-war warriors) battling each other, with a distracting cast of cameos (Jeff Daniels! Treat Williams! Pollux Troy from Face/Off!) as pawns. Individually, the two elements are fine. Franco is never more convincing than when spouting abstract, stoned wisdom, and he’s rather loveable here. The trial is played for wry comedy, an intellectual war of critical ideas in which hindsight creates substantial potential for what-were-they-thinking? laughter. Together, though, the effect is often like watching an illustrated university lecture, or one of those TV docudramas that uses actors because it can’t find, or afford, the archive footage.
It works, ultimately, because the material is still fascinating over fifty years on. I’m not just talking about the exhilarating rhythms and language of Ginsberg, although this is a film that makes explicit the fact that it was meant to be listened to, rather than read. More than that, the obscenity trial itself cracks open a debate that we’re still having today. At a wider level, when bloggers have recaptured the laissez-faire, DIY vibe of the Beats, it seems opportune that Howl arrives alongside a recent documentary about William S. Burroughs, and the forthcoming can’t-believe-it’s-never-been-filmed-before adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. If – as that suggests – the Beats are back in fashion, Epstein and Friedman’s movie is a decent stab at explaining their appeal, for the simple reason it is prepared to take similar artistic risks when all the evidence suggests that this shouldn’t work at all.