Although Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl is little more than a series of thoughtful, pedantic, and downright loopy footnotes to Allen Ginsberg’s most famous poem, it also contains a few precious scenes that approximate the same bursts of naked feeling that inflame Ginsberg’s best work.
This documentary/mosaic is broken into four separate yet interlocking sections. The first section, filmed in faux-gritty black and white, reimagines the first public reading of “Howl” at a San Francisco coffeeshop. A second section uses courtroom transcripts and a cadre of minor movie stars (Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, David Straithairn, and Jon Hamm) to re-enact highlights from the 1957 obscenity trial inspired by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Another section interprets the poem through a series of animated vignettes, with predictably mixed results. Tying everything together are some personal reminiscences by Ginsberg (played by James Franco), musing and putzing around in a greenish apartment a few years after the trial that secured his fame and reputation.
The courtroom sequences are almost entirely devoid of suspense; “Howl” wormed its way into the canon a while ago, and these days, a crafty teacher can slip this compact, homoerotic cri de coeur into a high school English class without much fuss. But the trial scenes nonetheless fascinate because of the attention lavished on, of all things, the opinions of literary critics and academics. In these post-expert times, it’s almost touching to see fussy adjunct-professor types serve the cause of justice by fumbling their way through muddled definitions of literary merit. Weirder still is the collective blind spot of the prosecution’s battery of literary critics, who crow about the poem’s “formlessness” while failing to notice its obsessive, incantatory use of repetition and parallelism.
Purring, err-ing and groaning his way through the film, Franco-as-Ginsberg offers a fairly effective vocal impersonation, although he can’t duplicate Ginsberg’s glassy, lights-are-on-but-nobody’s-home stare. To Epstein and Friedman’s credit, the film doesn’t glorify the rest of the Beat generation, which Ginsberg dismisses as “just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” The poet’s rambling, mock-serious commentary on his own artistic inspirations and practices reaches its apex when, while reminiscing about a Cezanne he saw in a museum, he defines good art as a form of prophecy that communicates feeling across time.
The animated visualizations of the work both slow down the poem and expand it, and while it’s admirable to force moviegoers to listen to Ginsberg’s flood of words, words and image don’t always cooperate. The most successful imagery, which is inspired in part by the animated flourishes in Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd movie The Wall, appears during the “Moloch” section, Ginsberg’s screed against the suburban-industrial complex. The least successful imagery involves either the skinny urban vampire wandering through the streets or the cosmic couplings of Ginsberg’s all-inclusive sexual fantasias. And the most memorable imagery (for better or worse) shows a forest of phallic trees that discharge their glorious payload…um…“under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon.”
Verdict: better than a poetry reading.
Opens Friday, October 29th, Studio on the Square.