You might think a film about a poem by Beat Generation stalwart Allen Ginsberg might be dull, sentimental or just plain pointless – well you’d be wrong. ‘Howl’ is itself a work of art, divided as it is between a recreation of courtroom sequences of the actual obscenity trial of the published poem, an animation of said poem and a pseudo-documentary interview with James (‘Harry Osborn’) Franco as Ginsberg, again with its dialogue lifted from actual interviews he gave. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have taken a lot of daring risks with this film, not least of which the animation – how can a film which decries putting poetry into prose possibly make definitive statements about ‘Howl’ by forcing fixed ideas and images onto it? And yet it manages to charm, to educate and entertain at the same time. It may walk a line of hypocrisy, and may not quite rise to the standards it sets for itself, but it comes pretty close indeed.
‘Howl’ was prosecuted, as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was three years later, for obscenity in 1957, and Epstein & Friedman’s script offers an insight into who Ginsberg was, what experiences and social changes made him into the towering figure he became, and why the poem was judged as not guilty of obscenity as Lawrence’s book was. It’s a brave undertaking and is supported by a towering performance by Franco of the great, gay poet who helped to transform post-war American popular culture. It’s a moving ode to a complicated man, which may not offer much more than a snapshot of him, set mostly at only one point in his life, but it’s no less powerful for it. I was inspired, interested and moved, when all I’d expected was to watch a courtroom drama which is there, but very much not the primary plotline the film makers have chosen to set their focus on.
Very much at the forefront of ‘Howl’ is the animation, and much has been made of it. Were the film makers wrong to fix ideas into the poem? Maybe. But as other criticism I’ve read points out, their chief error could be seen as making it more serious in hindsight than it was likely meant to be at the time. Ginsberg wasn’t considered a genius at the time (when Lawrence surely was), but in the same way that the Chatterley trial opened the door to greater freedom of speech in the UK in high culture, the ‘Howl’ trial offered the same opening for its ‘low’ counterpart. What harm was there in someone using the word ‘fuck’ or ‘ass’ or any sexually suggestive language, particularly when the point of writing the poem wasn’t there to influence but to impress? The film needed a slightly more critical look here and didn’t fully follow through.
Other criticism I’ve read complains that Franco is held back from delivering a fully three-dimensional and emotionally convincing performance because very little of what made Ginsberg tick being offered in the script, and while this is unquestionably true (would his predilection for younger boys in later life have made him a remotely sympathetic subject?), I don’t think it matters altogether much. ‘Howl’ is a tribute to the co-writers/co-directors’ hero, it’s a brilliantly told story of a fascinating man whose literary impact is still being felt half a century later, and Franco’s performance is compelling. It may not be perfect but it’s not terribly far off.
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