Like the counterculture icon that penned the poem that serves as the title to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film, Howl is one odd bird. The study of a young, pre-showman Allen Ginsberg—embodied by James Franco, proving once and for all he’s the next Johnny Depp—and the repressive Eisenhower era he rebelled against is presented via three interweaving channels. First, there’s the courtroom drama adapted from actual transcripts from the 1957 obscenity trial of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti that the infamous book of poems sparked. Second, there’s the fictional interview conducted by an unseen journalist using Ginsberg’s own words. Then there’s the animation of the notorious poem itself (designed by Eric Drooker, who collaborated with Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems). All of which gives Howl the look of Good Night, and Good Luck. meets Waltz with Bashir.
And to pull off this experimental approach, the Academy Award-winning directors have assembled a team of highly skilled talent both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Unfortunately, save for Franco (who performs a series of monologues and never interacts with the rest of the players), there’s nothing for the other members of the acclaimed cast to do other than serve as stand-ins in the historical recreation of a landmark court case. And unless you’re shooting Zizek or Cornel West, philosophical debating followed by reaction shots of deep thinking is just not cinematic.
Like with Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, which DP Lachman also filmed, concept trumps story—which makes Howl feel more like a dissertation (albeit one with multiple camera angles, mixed stocks, and lots of quick cuts to liven up the dry dialogue) than an emotionally engaging film. As good as Franco is—with his college-professor cadence and nonstop hand gestures that distract from the pretty face beneath the ugly lenses—his drawing of Ginsberg as a libido-less romantic misses a key ingredient of the Beat legend’s essence.
Like many a downtown club kid in the early ‘90s, I ran into Ginsberg once—in the basement of the Pyramid Club, and was introduced by a mutual friend whose band was performing (and, typically, being shot by Ginsberg, who probably took as many photos of others as others took of him). He may have looked like an aging academic, but his warmth and sense of play was vividly on display. This was no neutered, cerebral visionary like Epstein and Friedman present (I guess to go along with the inexplicably sissified versions of real-life rough trade Cassady and Kerouac), but a man who, like every great artist, retained a childlike curiosity and restless exuberance. The co-directors may have gotten Ginsberg’s shutterbug love right, but we never see the lusty rebel possessed by a driving need to chronicle through image-drenched words, the passion for life that gave birth to “Howl.” By sticking so closely to the cold facts, Epstein and Friedman have lost the complicated spirit of Ginsberg himself. Ironically, they’ve ended up creating a reverent, simplistic portrait of an irreverent, forever-questioning man.