By Don Simpson | September 15, 2010
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Writers: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Aaron Tveit, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Prescott, Alessandro Nivola, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams
“Who were expelled from the academy for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull…”
— Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
On March 25, 1957, customs officials seized 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem “Howl” as it was being imported from a printer in London — the seizure was done on the basis of one line: “Who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” The poem’s new domestic publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, was brought to trial on obscenity charges.
Howl examines the obscenity trial against Ferlinghetti, relying heavily on dialogue taken verbatim from the courtroom transcripts. Howl also interprets “Howl” via an interview that Ginsberg gave to Life magazine as well as a reenacted live reading of the poem itself; animated interpretations of Ginsberg’s “Howl” by The Monk Studio are interspersed throughout.
According to Ginsberg’s Life magazine interview, “Howl” is about frankness and opening up discussions about cultural taboos. In Howl, Ginsberg and “Howl” are windows to a much bigger deliberation on how is art interpreted and who is qualified (and authorized) to interpret art on the basis of its moral and ethical message. What is more important: freedom of expression or right-wing Christian values? By way of Ferlinghetti’s eloquent defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), Howl also carries a message about the power of rhetoric to alter opinions.
Though not necessarily a “gay film,” Howl does very clearly represent the “other” perspective of the LGBT community who, even today, are told that they are lesser than the heterosexual community. “Howl” was penned when homosexuality was a punishable offense and considered to be a mental illness (Ginsberg himself spent time in “the loony bin” until he promised to be straight); now we have California’s Proposition 8. Howl (and “Howl”) asks of its audience to celebrate the joys of non-conformity as well as being creative, open-minded and free.
Via its freewheeling and tangential narrative structure, Howl represents an alternative approach to cinema. (Howl breaks just as many rules of the cinema as “Howl” did of poetry.) The only true overarching plot is that of the trial, but we rarely stay in the courtroom for more than a few minutes at a time — a technique that effectively places the emphasis on random sound bites from the prosecutor (David Strathairn) and defense attorney rather than the overall process of the trial. Howl may utilize words from the hearings but it is not about the obscenity trial, just as the film is not about the Life magazine interview or the poem itself. The writing-directing-producing team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman create a tapestry of words from the three sources, intertwining them in such a way to reveal a greater significance, purpose and meaning. The result is brilliant.
The cinematography is poetic and beautiful; the costume and set design is spot-on. As for the animation, well…I understand that creating a visual interpretation of a poem is tricky business mainly because not everyone is going to agree with the interpretation. The images themselves are fine (though they are dependent on the audience agreeing with this interpretation of “Howl” — a poem that is open to countless interpretations), but I have a problem with the style of animation used by The Monk Studio to represent Ginsberg’s words. At times it looks (to me) like a prog-rock music video, other times like outtakes from Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd The Wall (when I visualize “Howl” I do not see anything even remotely resembling Pink Floyd The Wall).
Strathairn is pitch-perfect as the bumbling, conservative prosecutor Ralph McIntosh; Hamm is equally enticing as Jake Ehrlich. Franco nails Ginsberg’s unique accent, cadence, and diaphragmatic power; but I cannot stop thinking to myself, “That is James Franco.” It is a great performance, but there is something about Franco that keeps me from fully accepting him as Ginsberg. I have yet to be able to pinpoint what that is. (Maybe the glasses and beatnik wardrobe were not enough to convince me?)
The obscenity trial was widely publicized (including articles in Time and Life magazines) which clearly initiated and fed the popularity and notoriety of “Howl.” (The trial was published by Ferlinghetti’s lead defense attorney Jake Ehrlich in a book called Howl of the Censor.) Ferlinghetti won the case when Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of “redeeming social importance.” I second that notion!
”To recreate the measure and syntax of poor human prose…”
— Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”