Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
The Beat Generation defined itself by free expression emotionally, sexually and in a literary sense. Encapsulating the freedoms and liberated ideals that the Beatniks stood for, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ became a defining piece of work for this generation from the moment it was first published in 1956. Other defining works of the period have either already made it to the screen (Naked Lunch) or are on the way (On The Road), but how to adapt a poem like ‘Howl’ for celluloid?
Writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s approach is to examine how ‘Howl’ came to be. Dedicated to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met in a mental institution, the three-part epic poem is a treatise on the devaluation of the post-war generation. Its stark sexual references (particularly the overtly homosexual references) led to the publishers of ‘Howl’ being tried for obscenity in 1957. Howl divides its time between the obscenity trial, interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) and Franco reading the poem aloud. Following on from 127 Hours, Franco delivers another engaging performance, investing all his natural charisma in Ginsberg and effectively capturing his laid-back charm.
The three-pronged narrative approach taken by Epstein and Friedman is both a blessing and a curse. On the downside, it could be argued that Howl lacks a clear focus. The focus on the obscenity trial could be scene as an excuse for injecting a little salaciousness to proceedings, as state prosecutor McIntosh (David Strathairn) is reduced to uttering ‘obscenities’ to illustrate his argument whilst smooth defence lawyer Ehrlich (Jon Hamm, in full Don Draper mode) looks on. Howl may be a treatise on the poem, but the courtroom scenes feel dropped in to serve as a reminder that it’s full of naughty words!! Still, it does give Strathairn and Hamm a chance to flex their muscle, as well as drop in some neat cameos (from the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels). The sections featuring the reading of the poem are accompanied by vivid animations, but they serve equally to illustrate and distract from the poem. Surely the words are enough to make a point. Still, there’s no shortage of visual beauty here, and the whole film, whether in bright Technicolor or black-and-white is beautifully shot by Edward Lachman.
Like Ginsberg himself, Howl boasts a distinct sense of mischief. However, despite Franco’s best efforts, the film periodically forgets that there’s meaning beneath the profanity. Howl brings the style of Ginsberg’s work to the screen, if not quite all the substance.