“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” Thus marks the beginning of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” arguably the most famous American poem of the post-war era. Discovering this poem has been a vital moment in the lives of so many so-called “angel-headed hipsters” over the last fifty years that it hardly seems surprising that someone has finally tried to make a film out of it. With the exception of Cronenberg’s wild adaptation of Naked Lunch, films based on beat generation works have usually met with mixed success (that being said, I will still be there on opening day for Walter Salles’ currently-filming adaptation of On The Road next year), and that trend sadly continues with Howl, from famed documentarians Rob Epstein (The Times Of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt) and Jeffrey Friedman (who co-directed Common Threads). Howl is not a bad film by any means; it just doesn’t add anything particularly interesting to its source. There are some great performances and some nice imagery, but I can’t imagine anyone walking out of the theater with any particularly new knowledge of the poem or Ginsberg himself.
Ginsberg is played by the excellent-as-always James Franco, who perfectly captures many of the poet’s mannerisms. Franco and the other actors bring a realistic sense of strung-out awkwardness to the beat writers that is missing in Jack Kerouac’s ultra-cool portrayals of the same group. The film is divided into a few continuously intercutting sections. First is a black and white version of Ginsberg’s famous first reading of the poem In San Francisco in 1955. This is followed by an animated adaptation of the poem itself, flashbacks to the time surrounding the poem’s creation, a series of interviews with Ginsberg, taken from actual transcripts, and a portrayal of the obscenity trial that Lawrence Ferlinghetti faced after publishing the poem, in which his lawyer Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) struck a major blow for free speech. And somehow they cover all of this in less than 90 minutes, which is ultimately the film’s biggest problem. None of these individual parts ever really come together into a cohesive whole. The trial scenes are a commentary on the literary worth of the poem mixed with some basic commentary on the need for free speech, but the simple fact that this film exists proves the literary worth of “Howl” and the free speech arguments are hurt by their lack of development. The interviews are the best parts of Franco’s performance, but they make it seem too much like a documentary (note the directors’ backgrounds) and add little narrative or emotional depth to the flashbacks, which are the real heart of the film.
If anything, I’d say this film works best as an introduction to the poem, as evidenced by the two most interesting parts of the story: the animation and the flashbacks. The animation isn’t particularly great, and at times it is far too literal in how it portrays the “story” of the poem, but other than those few over-literal moments, the animation makes a wonderful visual accompaniment to Franco’s voice. For the early parts of the poem, the animation is accompanied by classical music, which works very well at creating a coherent mood, but later the music switches to something that sounds more like post-rock, and while the music itself, composed by the Coen Brothers’ usual composer, Carter Burwell, is still pretty good, the mood seems off, and it made me wonder why the film contains so little jazz, even though that music so defines the beats. Getting back on point, creating a literalized visual landscape for a poem that provides such a difficult description of America seems like an incredibly complex undertaking, and the directors here have probably done as good a job as can be expected. In truth though, it’s the flashbacks that provide a greater understanding of the true meaning behind the poem. We get to see Allen’s life with Jack Kerouac, who inspired him to write, Neal Cassady, his first gay lover, Carl Solomon, the man Ginsberg met in a mental asylum who inspired “Howl” and Peter Orlovsky, his life-long lover. These are the men who inspired the acts described in the poem, particularly in part one, and the film’s best moments are the small snippets we get of these relationships.
Ultimately, the film never moves far enough beyond simply explaining the poem. I believe this has a lot to do with the directors’ backgrounds in documentary filmmaking because in the end, Howl feels more like an educational experience than an artistic one (for a truly excellent doc on the beats, watch Chuck Workman’s 1999 film The Source). However, that’s not to say this is a film without some merits. The performances are truly excellent. Ginsberg’s ever-present thick glasses distort Franco’s eyes in a way that makes him look half-mad throughout, and the actor plays off of that madness very well in the interview sequence. There have been other good portrayals of Ginsberg in films past (David Cross in I’m Not There is the first to come to mind), but none have captured his essence quite like Franco. He probably deserves some sort of award-season recognition and Jon Hamm shines as Ehrlich, although, to be completely fair, the character is not exactly a far departure from the equally cool and persuasive Don Draper. David Strathairn brings a degree of depth and humor to the prosecutor, who could have easily just been a stock evil lawyer. Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker and Treat Williams all have enjoyable extended cameos as “expert” witnesses in the trial, either arguing for or against the poem’s literary merit. I was also impressed with some of the film’s aesthetic merits, particularly during the flashbacks and the reading of the poem, which tried to capture the same general look as Ginsberg’s famous photographs of the other beat writers and, not inconsequentially, John Cassavetes’ Shadows, arguably the best film ever made about the beat generation. The interviews are in color and tend to be shot from relatively close-up, capturing Franco’s face in detail as he constantly moves across the room. This technique provides a level of energy to these scenes that may otherwise have been missing. Based on these aspects and my love of the poem and most things beat, I can’t tell you not to see the film, but it’s still too short and too shallow to live up to the potential of its concept and source.
-Adam Burnstine
Howl is currently unrated but contains nothing really offensive.
Howl will be released in Boston on October 1, 2010.
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; director of photography, Edward Lachman, edited by Jake Pushinsky, original music by Carter Burwell; produced by Elizabeth Redleaf, Christine Kunewa Walker, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Gus Van Sant; distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
With: James Franco (Allen Ginsberg), Jon Hamm (Jake Ehrlich), David Strathairn (Ralph McIntosh), Jeff Daniels (David Kirk), Bob Balaban (Judge Clayton Horn), Aaron Tveit (Peter Orlovsky) and Mary-Louise Parker (Gail Potter).

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