Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl isn’t a straight-forward dramatization of the 1957 obscenity trail of San Francisco “Howl” publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and for that, if nothing else, it should be commended. The film alternates between four periods, which I assume is meant as homage to the four-part structure of the poem itself. There are flashbacks to Allen Ginsberg’s early life in the late 1940s and early 1950s, shot in gorgeously pristine black and white, that establish the poet as an uncertain, fledgling young man who discovers like-minded misfits—such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady—who will eventually become part of what would be called the Beats. There is also a partial reenactment of Ginsberg’s legendary debut performance of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in 1955, in a grainier black and white meant to approximate the lively, seedy intoxication of being at a very right place at a considerably right time. There are the startlingly literal yet beautiful animated interpretations of key passages—taken from drawings Ginsberg collaborated on—of the poem itself, and there’s the obscenity trial portion, lit in vibrant 1950s movie colors, featuring a parade of notable character actors testifying to both the wickedness and brilliance of Ginsberg’s effort. (The stunt casting mostly works except for Mary-Louise Parker, who falters self-consciously playing against type.) Lastly, there’s Ginsberg in his New York apartment in an interview with an invisible someone, speaking—with wonderfully common sense—of his art and life as the trial that will make him an icon continues.
This structure sounds busier and more labored than it actually is. Howl is a fleet 80 minutes that you really want to like—and I did, to an extent, except the film fails to come together as anything more than a conceit and a pleasant tribute. It cuts around so much that it never establishes a true present tense; each portion is a pretty good yet insular short film that effectively subtracts the subject from his habitat. Ginsberg’s life and his relationships with mutual icons that will come to inform this work remain disappointingly vague—exhibits in an obvious foregone conclusion. These photogenic, brilliant young writers and vagabonds are rarely allowed to behave as eating, cursing, shitting, fucking animals of this Earth—which misses the very drive of “Howl.”
The Beats are tough, their work mostly resisting traditional cinematic interpretations, and so the temptation on the part of the filmmaker to hedge bets with something reverent and outwardly faithful to the source material is understandable. But Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, for example, worked because the filmmaker recognized his considerable differences in sensibility from Burroughs, and created a hybrid of tribute and reinterpretation that arose as a distinctly troubled work of its own. In terms of films about writers, another admittedly tough nut to crack, American Splendor successfully grappled with the process of the art and the life and the intermingling of the two with a meta structure that’s somewhat similar to Howl‘s. The actors in Naked Lunch and American Splendor were allowed to play in-the-moment characters, as opposed to spokesmen for a higher retrospective cause.
As Ginsberg, James Franco doesn’t quite achieve that appearance of spontaneity. Franco can be an inventive, charismatic actor, and he does good work when he’s given material that allows him to experiment and cut loose, such as the recent 127 Hours. He’s trying for a fairly exact approximation here, and while Franco isn’t boring, he never convinces you that “Howl” sprang from his tormented interior. Out of context, Franco’s work is poignant because he’s an unmistakably contemporary actor tipping his hat to a legend; he’s at his best in the interview sequences, as they allow him to relax a bit.
But I don’t wish to beat up on the film too much. Howl ultimately doesn’t work because it fails to effectively establish the suffocating madness of the American system that influenced the Beats and others. But Epstein and Friedman are undeniably wrestling with the material, so you can’t accuse them of coasting through this subject matter. Imagine the bloated 140-minute Oscar-ready Ron Howard/Akiva Goldsman film this could have been.
Howl is beautifully made, and the DVD offers a strong transfer. The image preserves the distinct lighting of each of the film's four segments: The rich, velvety black and white of one segment contrasts with the grainier texture of the other monochromatic section, establishing without much fuss the intended shifting moods. The color segments—both in the courtroom and animation sequences—are sharp with clear contrast among the varying lights and grays. The sound is rich and immersive, particularly in the animated interpretations of "Howl" itself.
The extras might be more effective than the movie proper. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman explain in the making-of feature that they rejected a documentary approach because they wanted to establish a present tense of the titular poem's creation and reception. The material collected in the "Director's Research Tapes" indicates that the filmmakers, who previously collaborated on the documentary The Celluloid Closet, might have misjudged that call. Ginsberg associates, such as lover Peter Orlovsky and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, provide a real texture and sense of sentiment and context that the film itself never quite manages. The conversational commentary is engaging, and the footage of a late Ginsberg performance anticipates your curiosity after watching the film, saving you a search on YouTube. Franco's audio-only performance is a mannered but offers interesting contrast.
The Howl DVD is a strong, affectionate transfer of a well-crafted film that never quite comes together.