The best newspaper journalists of our generation seemed to be
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves
through Soho looking for an angry cinematic fix. Louche-trousered
critics burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo
in the machinery of night.
Who fancies a Beat review for a Beat film about a Beat poem? It seems only fitting considering Howl is one of those films you want to see made and rarely does; original, thoughtful and imperfectly blurring the boundaries of film and poetry.
Howl ’s structure (the film not the book) weaves together three
separate strands: imagined interviews with Ginsberg, the obscenity trial
against Howl and the poem itself in stream of conscious animation.
Clearly a straight-up biopic didn’t suit writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Lately, they’ve been calling this film a ‘poem-pic’.
The obscenity trial gives a narrative backbone to the film- though
it’s Howl’s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the stand not Ginsberg.
With it, the film establishes the ridiculous conservatism of the time as
well as the shock value of a poem being printed in the mid-Fifties with
the line: “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists”. Jon Hamm tries his best not to be a Don Draper
facsimile in the role of Ferlinghetti’s erudite defence lawyer while
David Strathairn gives believable humanity to the bamboozled
But Howl doesn’t try to recreate the world of Fifties New York or
Sixties San Francisco; it’s much more interested in the surreal world of
poetic imagination and getting Ginsberg’s inspiration and troubled
background in his own words. James Franco’s performance is convincing
and wistful. He nails Ginsberg in full incantatory public recital
mode complete with New York Jewish drawl and distinctive cadence. You
know this, not just from live recordings of Ginsberg reading his own
poetry but because the English poet Michael Horovitz, a contemporary and
friend, stated as much at a press screening.
How can you do justice visually to the strange, esoteric, garbled world of Beat poetry? Well, the credentials of the team that made Howl are impeccable. The animated sections of the film were designed by the graphic artist Eric Drooker
who collaborated with Ginsberg on animating various poems including
Howl in its entirety. Gus Van Sant is the film’s executive producer and
he directed a short film of Ginsberg reading his poem ‘Ballad of the
Skeletons’ to the music of Paul McCartney and Philip Glass back in 1997,
so you’d hope he’d feel some obligation to get the tone of the
animations right. And the Fantasia-like sequences do their best to
render the misfit kaleidoscopic world of Howl with its vagrants, urban
decay, poverty, hallucinations, strangulated cries and strange divine
burstings but they can only limit the poem’s possibilities by visually
narrowing our interpretation of Ginsberg’s words to a set of parallel
But this is a philosophical problem rather than a stylistic one. The
film tries to be as ambitious as the poem and should be praised. That it
does not entirely work is through no fault of the directors, much less Franco’s terrific, nuanced performance.
Howl just serves as a reminder of what film can’t do and poetry can. A
point entertainingly made in an illuminating hour and a half.