Howl (2010) is a movie told in three parts, interlocked and somewhat clunky, the poet, the poem and the aftermath. Firstly there’s the Poet Allen Ginsberg, played perfectly by James Franco. Ginsberg answers questions and delivers dialogue in an off-citrus tinge of Technicolor to an invisible non-interrupting ear. The intimacy in which these scenes are presented evokes a sense of confinement and frustration and captures the essence of the poet around the time of Howl’s conception. Franco is so believably Ginsberg that it’s easy to think you’re watching a documentary which is a great accolade for the actor but not so great for the film as a whole. Brief interspersions of monochromic life, reveal nothing but a pretty snapshot. We see Allen in turbulent relationships, in the criminal act that resulted in him being sectioned but these are all backed up with a narrative which comes across as somewhat condescending. I think Franco is compelling enough in his storytelling to enable the imagination to fill in the gaps. The disdainful monochrome is broken with the introduction of art where through one of his favourite paintings colour is introduced and we can see that the arts is what enables Ginsberg to really come to life – but it’s patronising in its explanation.
Secondly, there is the poem itself. Delivered by Franco and juxtaposed with fanciful animation of flying fairies, well-hung tramps, the mighty phallus and a flapping vagina. As in the scene towards the films climax, to see Franco as Ginsberg, reading the poem is compellingly emotive and this is exactly how the poem came to be, the poet performs and delivers in the tone in which it was written and the audience interpret and use their imagination. But the filmmakers take it upon themselves to demonstrate every word with a cartoon, suggesting cinema-goers are unable to contemplate the essence of poetry. I know it’s a film but I do believe that if the directors had had enough faith, James Franco could have delivered the poem to camera and it would have been significantly more rewarding.
Finally, the aftermath consists of a court-case to establish the literary worth of Howl and its effect on the common man. The case demonstrates how we have progressed as a society and demonstrates the evolution of art and freedom of expression. John Hamm is the gum that maintains its flavour in these scenes. So convincing is he as Don Draper in Mad Men, it is easy to believe he actually co-exists in a 50’s/60’s pseudo-society and he’s just slipped off his ad-hat and popped into court to defend a poem on his lunch hour. There are big names and well known faces popping up in this court, Mary Louise Parker (Weeds), Treat Williams (127 Hours), David Strathairn (The Soprano’s) and Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber). All these recognisable TV and film stars in a 1950’s courtroom is a little distracting and in effect is ultimately inauthentic. The literary worth of Howl and Ginsberg as the poet is well scrutinised in these scenes but the irony of Ginsberg being responsible for the publication of Kerouac’s On The Road is dismissed to a line of throwaway text in the end credits, something that would go unnoticed to the breed of cinema-goer that runs for their life the second the moving images cease to a halt.
The film on the whole is concise and insular. In the breif insight into Allen Ginsberg 's personal life , he is painted as a shy, subtle, yet frustrated individual and a third-wheel in his friendships and relationships. However, as unlucky as he was in the beginning Ginsberg eventually found love with poet Peter Orlovsky, with whom he was in a relationship with for forty years but this is only breifly touched upon and the directors barely credit Peter with a voice. There is no heavy supply of beatnik extras, aside from the court attendees and Ginsberg’s finger-clicking fan-base and fame barely comes into account which demonstrates clearly the stark contrast between artistic expression in the 50’s and the celebrity-heavy and sycophantic society we live in today. The directors of the film Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s only previous experience of directing prior to Howl was with documentary (The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and The Celluloid Closet (1995)). Allegedly the directors’ original intention was to make Howl in documentary format. It’s a shame they didn’t. Howl’s Executive Producer Gus Van Sant did such an amazing job of bringing their previous subject Harvey Milk to the screen (Milk (2008)), I am sure if he had taken Howl at the helm it would have been considerably superior.