- Rated NR
- Buy the BD
All photos © Oscilloscope Laboratories
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ven for those of us who are now well over 40, it's a little hard to imagine the power of the curse word before the late 1960s. Though they popped up in British films of the 30s and 40s, even "hell" and "damn" were all but outlawed in mainstream American theaters, with a special exception being made for the final line of "Gone With the Wind." Stronger language was another matter. Novels by James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence became censorship cause célèbres through the 50s primarily because they contained such words as "fuck" and "cunt" and used them in an overtly sexual context. Using even somewhat milder vulgarisms in any context anywhere outside of a dive bar, construction yard, or battlefield could get you arrested. Early 60s comedian Lenny Bruce dared to use some very blunt language in his groundbreaking act, was badly harassed by authorities, and became so obsessed it appears to have ended both his career and, eventually, his life.
Fortunately, the most famed of the beat poets and master intellectual showman, Allen Ginsberg, did not make himself a martyr for the cause of verbal freedom, although his troubles actually preceded Bruce's by a few years and he upped the ante considerably. Ginsberg not only said the F-word, he also admitted openly to doing the F-word with other men and liking it. Nevertheless, he wasn't the one arrested for writing his blunt elegy and salute for post World War II bohemia, "Howl." It was poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti who was charged with obscenity for publishing it and selling it at his City Lights book store in San Francisco's North Beach.
Of course, there was a lot more to a 2,900 word lyric poem like "Howl" than its brief but frank references to gay and straight sexuality, which 53 years later renders it impossible to broadcast without risking a huge FCC fine. You've likely heard its famous and curse-free opening lines:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...
I'm personally more of an e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson sort of a guy, but I know poetry when I see it, and this is not porn.
Documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film about "Howl" intercuts between the 1957 obscenity trail and the story of how Ginsberg came to write the once shocking poem. James Franco, on the precipice of A-list stardom with the upcoming "127 Hours," stars as the poet, enacting excerpts from interviews and essays. Actual transcripts are used in the courtroom scenes with Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" and "The Town" as dapper defense attorney James Ehrlich, David Straithairn ("Good Night and Good Luck") as nervous prosecutor Ralph Mackintosh, and the ever mild-mannered Bob Balaban as inscrutable Judge Clayton Horn. Jeff Daniels and Mary Louise Parker both appear as somewhat eccentric alleged expert witnesses for the prosecution. As mute defendant Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Andrew Rodgers manages to make an impression without saying a single word or even moving very much.
The odd and interesting thing about "Howl" is that, despite the fact that almost all of the footage is dramatized, as docudramas go, it's much more documentary than drama. There's no real attempt here by directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman to tell a conventional story – instead we're provided more with a series of facts and impressions. If Ginsberg hadn't died at 70 in 1997, the filmmakers may well have decided to get an actual interview. Similarly, if footage had existed of the trial, they might have used that as well and we'd be left mostly with an actual documentary.
However, there is a third component of "Howl," the quasi-documentary, and that's "Howl," the work of literature. The poem is presented through narration by Franco as Ginsberg and memorable surreal animation designed by illustrator Eric Drooker, who also created a graphic novel of the poem. There are also brief black and white dramatic recreations of moments from Ginsberg's life prior to writing the poem, featuring Todd Rotondi and Jason Potter as "On the Road" writer Jack Kerouac and his legendary friend and inspiration, Neal Cassady. Both men were the object of Ginsberg's yearning despite, or because, of the fact that they identified as heterosexual, though Cassady at least appears to have been flexible on the point.
Considering that it attempts to tackle both the landmark obscenity trail and the emotional process that led to the book's creation, it's not a huge surprise that the movie doesn't hang together very well despite some strong moments. Certainly the acting in the courtroom segments is strong; no surprise given the outstanding abilities of the cast of skilled veterans. Still, this is primarily Ginsberg's story and "Howl" depends very heavily on the work of the talented but less consistently accomplished James Franco.
Franco, ordinarily a bit handsome to play the likably nerdy/professorial Ginsberg, does a remarkably good job of portraying the speech patterns and body language of the writer and looks a lot more like the young Ginsberg than you would expect. He's frequently moving and believable in the part, although I was more aware of his impersonation than I would have liked. In any case, the lengthy interviews are revealing if sometimes lacking in dramatic energy and the brief recreations of Ginsberg's past don't really last long enough to have much of an impact. Still, like the rest of the film, they are beautifully photographed by veteran cinematographer Edward Lachman ("I'm Not There," "Erin Brockovich").
As strong as most of its component parts often are, "Howl" just doesn't quite work. As the first film by Epstein and Friedman to step gingerly outside of traditional documentaries, it's not terribly surefooted. The directors even make the rookie error of relying too much on the score by Carter Burwell, particularly as Bob Balaban's Judge Horn delivers his ultimate decision. The moment is meant to be a stirring celebration of free speech but, as the music swells, mostly all the scene accomplishes is to remind us that we're watching a movie.
Two-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
If you're a "Howl" fan and contemplating a move to Blu-ray, there's no need to dither, because Oscilloscope's package contains both a DVD and Blu-ray disc of the movie. That's probably the most exciting thing about this set, which contains plenty of special features but very little that will interest anyone who is not already a passionate follower of Alan Ginsberg and "Howl." A commentary features the upbeat and chatty James Franco alongside co-directors Rob Epstein and Friedman and offers unsurprising information on Franco's involvement and the film as a whole. "Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl" includes the usual footage of the actors and others discussing the importance of the material and praising the directors, as well as some background on the making of the animated portions of the film.
"Directors Research Tapes" play like material for an abandoned traditional documentary and include interviews with Ginsberg's recently deceased life partner, Peter Orlavsky, poet/publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and illustrator Eric Drooker. Serious Beat poetry fans will certainly cherish previously unreleased video of Ginsberg performing the complete "Howl" at New York's Knitting Factory in 1995. I suppose hardcore James Franco fans might also enjoy audio of the actor reading the poem. The Blu-ray disc also features Allen Ginsberg reading the flower-themed poems "Sunflower Sutra" and "Pull My Daisy," and a Provincetown Film Festival Q&A with the directors and moderated by filmmaker/actor John Cameron Mitchell.