"Howl", written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is a beautifully constructed film woven around 4 main thematic strands. It is a skillfully layered portrait of Beat Poet great, Allen Ginsberg, as a person and poet, a beautifully rendered reading of his 4 part epic poem "Howl", a courtroom drama recreating the famous trial of Publisher/ Bookstore owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti ( charged with selling obscene material- that is, "Howl") and a graphic illustration/interpretation of the epic poem in question. Each of the 4 layers weaves in and out of each other at wonderfully precise nodal moments when one or more of the 4 streams connect on a point of emphasis or reference. Each of the 4 strands supports and contextualizes the others, making it almost impossible to imagine this wonderful little film existing without any of them.
Ginsberg's poem, portraying very personal events and largely inspired in its naked, crystalline candour by his love and admiration for Jack Kerouac, frankly, even joyously relays Ginsberg's experiences with gay sex, marijuana, booze, pills, bohemian roadtrips and a radical questioning of America and the established social order. It was Kerouac's influence, we see, that led the younger and smitten Ginsberg to take on his mentor's advice and create a poetry that was WHO he was and not something separate from himself and his life events. And it was that honesty that so shocked many and endeared countless more that influenced an entire generation. But that kind of portrayal of the disenfranchised, order-questioning, sexually exploratory world view of an emerging generation, bent on busting through countless personal and social barriers, was a threat to the old school. "Howl's" graphic images of sex, drugs, booze, jazz, psychological angst, anger, defiance, and refusal to submit to "the machine' was in direct opposition to what the established order saw as being the very heart and soul of "America". So someone called it dirty, tasteless and obscene ... and so it famously went to trial.
The courtroom scenes provide the 'drama' and tension of the film, as a classic socratic dialectic ensues over the debate of what constitutes obscenity itself and whether Ginsberg's highly personal, even autobiographical work deserves condemnation on that basis. Prosecutor for the People, Ralph McIntosh ( David Strathairn ), with his pinched, narrowed voice and priggish mannerisms seeks to convince Judge Clayton Horn ( Bob Balaban ) that Ginsberg's work is tasteless and obscene, indeed an offence to the American people. He tries to get 'literary experts' that he has called in to testify to disqualify Ginsberg's work as badly written scribble, claiming that it is unintelligible to him. The results both embarrass and backfire on him. Marie-Louise Parker's 'literary expert' sends richochets of derisive snickers through the courtroom when she claims to have re-written Faust. Her churchy, self-righteous, formalist, superior attitude, so perfectly characteristic of the posing dilletante undermines the debate and soon McIntosh has to scramble to re-orient his attack. He is largely taken down by his own words, as expertly and deftly pilloried by Defense lawyer, Jake Ehrlich ( done wonderfully by Jon Hamm ). Other witnesses either fumble on their stories ( Jeff Daniels) or disagree with McIntosh gently but clearly ( Treat Williams ). For the record, the script for the courtroom scenes was taken directly from the actual 1957 courtroom transcripts.
"Howl" the poem itself, whether it is quoted in the Ginsberg interview at the time of the trial or being read in a recreation of the first public appearance of the work, is 'illustrated' and interpreted by long term Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker. The animation sequences, then, are no mere spurious imputation on the film, they are created and orchestrated by a young New York City artist who Ginsberg knew, admired and worked with. There is now a fully illustrated edition of "Howl" with Drooker's work available in print as well as their collaboration "Illuminated Poems". Drooker, a social activist himself is a very successful graphic and fine artist, whose work has appeared on the front page of the New Yorker many times. His work is striking and contemporary, yet surprisingly appropriate as a visual take on Ginsberg's poetry. The 'Moloch' sequences are especially riveting.
James Franco's reading of "Howl" is a wonder in itself, as is his portrayal of Ginsberg in a press interview in his modest flat. Franco has nailed Ginsberg's idiosyncratic timbre, syntax and rythm admirably, even his hand movements and gestures, but it is no cheap imitation. Franco, not surprisingly, as he is a truly great actor, has really gotten into Ginsberg from the inside out and emanates the poet with honesty and simplicity. You truly believe that you are listening to Allen Ginsberg speak and you develop as much affection for Franco's channelled figure as you do for Ginsberg himself, so easy as he was to love. The interview allows you into Allen Ginsberg, the man, helping you to really firmly establish WHO Ginsberg was. His disarmingly childlike honesty made him ideologically impervious to rebuke and a force of goodness that had no real power other than the skill to speak nakedly and eloquently. The reading of "Howl" lets you into Allen Ginsberg, the artist, the poet and consciousness revolutionary. From both angles you can clearly see the guileless and uncontrived candour of a man who's greatest strength was his aching vulnerability and his greatest artistic success lay not so much in refinement of 'style' but in an adamantine commitment to honesty. Rarely has there ever been a man so excruciatingly and yet so admirably straightforward. You can close your eyes while Franco is reading "Howl" and you would be hard pressed to know if you were listening to him or to Ginsberg himself. In fact, at the end of the film, Ginsberg's famous harmonium accompanied song "Father Death Blues" plays for a few minutes over the end credits and you think you're hearing James Franco sing it. I thought, "well done, James". Then for the final verse, the film cuts to footage of Ginsberg himself singing it. It is quite moving and puts a very nice coda on to the end of the film. To make the scene of the first reading of "Howl" even more striking, the filmmakers have peppered the reading 'audience' with many faces of the time that are not explicitly revealed - Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso perhaps, for starters. It is fun to see who you can 'spot'.
James Franco's performance is perfection, both for its accurate recreation of the mannerisms of his subject and his totally convincing portrayals of the the emotions and soul of Allen Ginsberg. It's so natural a performance that you surrender completely to his Ginsberg, despite a considerable difference in their appearances. Franco has become a master of his craft with this role and it should land him some considerably hefty parts in the near future. He has finally come into his own.
Some might feel that there is a lot more to be said and portrayed about Allen Ginsberg, but the film is not primarily about the poet's entire life. That indeed warrants a completely new film. It is really about the poem that made him famous, how he came to create it and how that creation became a lightning rod for the polarized ideologies of the day. "Howl", the film, is also yet another portrayal of the defence of civil liberty in the face of right-wing reactionary attempts at limitation and control. It is as relevant an issue today as it was in 1957. So while another story about Ginsberg's life would make an excellent filmic opportunity, this one, however, is faithful to its mandate and handles itself with aplomb, certitude and great taste.
"Howl" will no doubt be an afficianado's fim, greatly enjoyed by admirers of the Beat Poets and of Ginsberg particularly. But it is so well made, shining with integrity and taste, that I think it might also 'turn on' anyone else not exposed to the time or the artist. It is likely to inspire many who value the principles, thoughts and mores of an artist, and his contemporaries, who continues to influence decade after decade. Great film.