You can’t expect a dramatic film about Allen Ginsberg to be a conventional biopic? Especially if the film is titled after his famous epic poem. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read it.)
Like the poem for which it’s named, Howl is challenging, cutting-edge, and unconventional. Yes, it gives an overview of Ginsberg’s life through 1957 (when Howl was first published), but it also celebrates and illustrates the work itself, as well as the freedom we enjoy that allows us to appreciate art that steps out of the bounds of perceived good taste.
Written and directed by documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl is as close to non-fiction filmmaking as you can get with actors reciting written dialog. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that there is any written dialog in the usual sense of the word. Or at least not much.
Most of the scenes where people are talking to each other, responding to each other, and asking and answering questions are set in a courtroom. And I believe that all of the dialog here was taken for actual court transcripts.
The trial in question is that of Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, brought up on obscenity charges for publishing Howl in 1957. These scenes are the most conventional in the movie, with good guys to cheer and villains whose logical absurdities are easy to laugh at. These court scenes are intertwined with two other threads that together make up the tapestry of Howl, the movie.
The narrative backbone comes from scenes of Ginsberg (James Franco) telling his life story to a barely-glimpsed person with a tape recorder—presumably a reporter. Interspersed flashbacks, in black-and-white, illustrate his words and add visual variety.
The other thread, and the best of them, has Franco reading excerpts from the titular poem. We see him, again in black-and-white, reading to an enthusiastic crowd of hipsters in 1955. But visuals don’t remain on this scene. Epstein and Friedman illustrate much of the poem with vibrant, startling, and occasionally (and appropriately) shocking animation. One could argue that Ginsberg’s poetry doesn’t need to be illustrated, but the animation adds another level to the imagery, and takes nothing away from Franco’s dramatic reading.
Epstein and Friedman fill the film with familiar faces. In addition to Franco, we get David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, and Jeff Daniels.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I’ve never read Howl. Now I really want to. This movie definitely had its intended effect.