The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet); every word is taken from transcripts, previous writings, and interviews. “In that sense, it is like a documentary,” the opening titles inform us. “In every other sense, it is different.” What they have cooked up is a kind of documentary-docudrama-literary hybrid, a clever hopscotching of poetry performance, first-person narrative, and courtroom drama. It is, indeed, different, a film that dispenses with the tropes of the biopic and forges its own eccentric path. Not all of its contrivances work; not all of its beats are successful. But it is a passionate picture, a live wire, and that counts for something.
It is about the young Allen Ginsberg (played, with somewhat surprising precision, by James Franco), but it is less about him than about his most famous work, “Howl”: as poetry, as biography, as performance, as literature, as obscenity. The numerous approaches to the material are intertwined in Epstein and Friedman’s narrative, which rotates between Ginsberg’s celebrated first reading of the poem in 1955, to an animated interpretation of the poem’s key passages, to an interview with Ginsberg two years later, to the San Francisco obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti the same year. Ferlinghetti, who published “Howl”, was the defendant, but it was really the poem itself that was on trial—and, indirectly, the new forms and crumbing boundaries that it and the other works of the “Beats” represented.
Perhaps the most engaging sections of the film are the re-enactments of Ginsberg’s performance at the Six Gallery Reading—and that is the word for what he does. It’s not a dry “reading”; we see Ginsberg acting out the work, selling it, drawing out the words, punching the vulgarities. The response of the stunned, exhilarated crowd is electrifying—and infectious. But the power of those scenes makes the animated imagining of the poem even less effective. It seems a wise move at first, particularly for novices like me who don’t read much of that artsy-craftsy poetry. But they’re ultimately muddying up the canvas. The words, as we can plainly see, are enough. The animation is clever, and often inspired, but it is often too literal, too on-the-nose, painting a picture for the reader/listener that is better left in their head. Perhaps the filmmakers feared too much of Franco’s face reading “Howl,” but the scenes we get of that very thing—particularly the moving and triumphant “holy, holy, holy” closing—indicate otherwise.
The courtroom scenes are compelling as well; using famous faces like John Hamm and David Strathairn to re-enact the Ferlinghetti trial may sound like a gimmick (and some actors, like Mary-Louise Parker, are unfortunately underutilized), but their scenes have real impact. Straithairn, as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, slyly encompasses the heart of the “square” ethos, perpetually hung up on “understanding” the text, convinced that if he doesn’t get it, if it is unclear specifically to him, it must not have value. As he crumples in the face of his fumbling case (and of Hamm, in full-on Draper mode as famed lawyer Jake W. Ehrlich), it’s like watching the entirety of 1950s conformity throw up its hands in frustration.
In recreating the later interview, Franco does both a good imitation and a good piece of acting. These sections provide the biographical details that informed the piece, drawing clear lines between the man and the work, which web out to encompass notions of creation, inspiration, and immersion in the world of the words. In its appropriation of documentary techniques to frame a dramatized story, Howl recalls the stylistic sophistication of Fosse’s Lenny and Scorsese’s Raging Bull, though Epstein and Freidman somewhat limit the picture’s dramatic possibilities by tethering themselves to the written record. That said, the mashing-up of styles and approaches is part of what makes Howl so intriguing; anyone can make a shouty docu-drama, but Epstein and Freidman create something subtler, and much more indelible.
Howl is a short, compact feature (without end titles, it’s just shy of 80 minutes), but it’s not a moment too long—this kind of experimentation can easily overstay its welcome. The materials of Ginsberg’s life or “Howl”’s legal woes could easily have been melded into a more conventional documentary or biographical treatment, but Epstein and Freidman’s offbeat treatment, though uneven, is far more rewarding.
"Howl" is available today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.