Figures of Speech
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on film
by Jason Blair
HOWL: Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Cinematography, Edward Lachman. Music, Carter Burwell. Starring James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Bob Balaban and Treat Williams. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010. R. 85 minutes.
“On paper.” A quaint phrase that still means by appearance rather than execution, it’s a term that came to mind as I suffered the hollow drumbeats of Howl. Amid all the noise and clamor parading as art, it struck me that the ingredients in Howl might have combined into something formidable. The writer/director has two Academy Awards to his credit, both for documentary, while the star, James Franco, has been groomed to carry a film since stealing scenes in movies from Milk to Date Night. Around Franco are gathered top performers from Broadway, television and film, all of them gifted actors rather than mere celebrities. In short, all the elements in Howl exist to create a fresh, memorable and lasting film experience. But sometimes, combinations turn out to be disastrous. I like fish, and I like whisky — just not in the same glass. The same goes for serious poetry and cartoons.
Howl is an attempt to tell three related stories. Using “court records, interviews and Howl by Allen Ginsberg,” the film recreates the early life of Ginsberg, a poetry reading in 1955 and the infamous 1957 obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Howl’s publisher and a poet in his own right. While the real Ginsberg could be whimsical but also serious and intimidating, as played by Franco he’s a teenage flirt, a loose and happy-go-lucky type who could pass for Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armison. There’s no danger, no sense of menace in the performance — or in the flights-of-fancy animation which accompany a recital of Howl in full and which, truth be told, look a lot more like Fantasia than the filmmakers probably intended. Whether you can enhance music by setting it to imagery is debatable. Improving a poem by setting it to imagery and music is impossible. The poem is the imagery and music.
While the obscenity trial is moderately gripping, primarily in that it features John Hamm (Mad Men) and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as dueling attorneys, the poetry reading is a basic-cable reenactment, and the coming-of-age story is as wobbly as Franco’s performance. The scenes are small without being intimate, cloistered and yet lacking definition. The filmmakers are so very, very self-conscious in their attempt to assimilate black-and-white footage, cartoons and reconstructed interviews — in short, a nonlinear jazz poem — that the result is too instructive, a thing unable to resist any urge put before it. Noisy and disruptive, Howl works far too hard to seem original. It’s one of the more affected and yet ineffective films in recent memory. It is paradoxically, ironically and unforgivably uptight — the very quality the Beat poets meant to overthrow — grinding out its agenda until you can barely stand to watch. My best advice is to close your eyes and listen, for “Howl” is best heard chanted. And so it is that, unless perhaps you’re stoned to the gills, the poem itself ends up saving the film from oblivion.
Franco will become a star yet, perhaps as soon as the release of his upcoming 127 Hours, in which he plays Aron Ralston, the injured hiker who removed his own arm in 2003. But Howl is a giant missed opportunity. Fans of Allen Ginsberg will eat Howl like soup. Fans of the Beat generation, James Franco, good filmmaking or poetry will come away feeling hungry.
Howl opens Friday, Dec. 10, at the Bijou.