There is something both motivating and mesmeric about the film Howl (2010), a clever ploy of the senses, a hodge-podge of interviews, animation, performance and courtroom procedural produced like a historical dramatization for the Biography channel if not for all the perversity; or maybe it’s just a documentary that tries too hard to make otherwise blasé anything but. Nonetheless, as a note of explanation or perhaps warning tells us just before the movie begins, “Every word in this film was spoken by the actual people portrayed. In that sense, the film is like a documentary. In every other sense, it is different” it is there, in this exploitative crossroads of fact and fiction where the film never truly begins or arrives anywhere. The story lingers too long on the dry, on highlighting the poetry that drones at times into the incomprehensible for the sake of nonsensical, and on shaping the visual narrative around the written one. Howl is the equivalent of turning the cinematic experience inside out by forcing words and pictures together that are frequently quarreling with one another. Howl plays like an obscure Herzog film, (see my review of My Son My Son What Have Ye Done) visually appealing but abstract and prickly, or a Van Sant movie-video (Paranoid Park) too swooned by its own pomposity to be as interesting as the filmmakers want you to believe it to be.
Many avenues lead one to the helm of a feature-length film; some evolve from music videos and television commercials, others write their way to the captain’s, or co-captain’s in this case, chair. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have created some twenty odd documentaries between them, a commendable task if not a telling one, a fact perhaps most evident in the documentary framework that eventually keeps it from escaping the boundaries of the medium. James Franco embodies Ginsberg the hazy hipster, the arrogant artist who professed omniscience in his work though it was widely known that he, along with the other Beats used drugs to expand upon ideas and characters. Anyone who has ever read or listened to the drug fueled poetry or writings of such ‘self awareness’ might have a better vantage point from which to appreciate Ginsberg’s poetry. Franco as Ginsberg delivers a series of interview segments that are the main vehicle for the narrative as well as the set-up of varying courtroom scenes where Lawrence Ferlinghetti is on trial for obscenity by publishing the book upon which the movie is named. These interviews also provide a segue to animated sequences over which Ginsberg delivers his poetry and brief interludes of moments from his life, such as his various, though obviously clipped encounters with several members of the collective that would become known as the Beat writers. All this to say documentaries are challenging enough to get right, dramatic feature films perhaps more so, and when you navigate to the uncharted waters of something of a hybrid of the two, the odds are against you from every seeing the shoreline again.
Howl attracted a number of top talents to the project though hardly a one of them seem appropriate for their parts, too much transcribed and not enough flesh, bones, and tears. Mary-Louise Parker is paper-thin beneath horn-rimmed glasses, David Strathairn shorn from wood as the befuddled prosecutor, Jeff Daniels and Jon Hamm (AMC’s Mad Men) are so stiff they feel as though they might break beneath the sheer weight of air. As other reviews have pointed out, the court room scenes could have been left out altogether for they do little to reveal much if anything of Ginsberg the man, the controversial figure, or little more than a few passages from his book that elicit a giggle or two but not much else. Ferlinghetti (Coney Island of the Mind) never utters a word while we listen painstakingly from one professor after another professional, those in support of the manuscript and those against; at one point Strathairn mirrors our own uncertainty, seemingly lost, directionless, floating as we float to find some moment amid the moments that we can latch onto. The totality of the courtroom scenes might have just as well been summarized in a montage, a few more animated sequences of stylized newspaper headings than take away from what could have been so much more of the man behind the work as the work in front of the man.
Howl is not so much a problematic movie as it is an uninspired documentary to all but the most fervent Beat reader and even at that, the dialog is well stylized, self-indulgent and observantly tailored when it was first delivered as much as it is here. We’re not given enough of the candid, enigmatic Ginsberg, the Ginsberg who wove profanity and perfunctory with equal abandon. Here, James Franco is believable enough as Ginsberg and maybe does a better job at it on the big screen, even though his lackadaisical droning feels more like a recitation than a performance, the read passage as opposed to a visual one.
In the end, Howl is a testament to the endearing attraction to a poem and the fight for freedom of speech and creative expression against oppression, distilled to a single voice from the collective voices of the times. Howl the poetry is about the journey of words and to some extent the man revealed by his creation. A counter-culture icon among artists, poets and writers and a passionate expressionist, Ginsberg perhaps single-handedly exemplifies a united movement that snagged a moment in history and made significant people, places and words that might have been overlooked altogether otherwise.
Howl the movie is an assemblage of disparate, generally incompatible methods of cinematic expression, an amalgam of the documented and the imagined kept loosely in a narrative that might best be enjoyed by some but not by all.