Like executive producer Gus Van Sant's Milk, Howl is an effort by baby boomers to use an iconic star to resuscitate the presence of a queer countercultural icon whose image might otherwise be fading from popular consciousness, particularly among the young. While Milk took the approach of a conventional biopic, and very effectively, Howl takes a much more experimental approach.
Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were first approached by Allen Ginsberg's longtime secretary to produce a documentary in conjunction with the 50th anniversary in 2005 of Ginsberg's landmark poem Howl. The completed film, however, combines extensive scenes scenes of James Franco as Ginsberg performing his poem for the first time in 1955, reenactments of the 1957 obscenity trial of the poem’s publisher, animation that often quite literally illustrates the contents of the poem, and a handful of archival photos.
The multitude of strategies is a fitting attempt to convey the spirit an artist who was wildly experimental—a symbol of experimentation itself. And the multimedia format is a good strategy to capture the attention of younger audiences who might lack the patience for talking heads from their great-grandparents’ generation.
As cinema, the different strategies are variably successful. Franco is electrifying in his performance of the poem, seeming to experience his own liberation as he goes along, starting with the nebbishy delivery that characterized Ginsberg’s actual early performances, and by the end exploding with the kind of ecstatic revelation that Ginsberg employed later in his career. Franco is also very good as a slightly older Ginsberg being interviewed, revealing an introspective clarity and a slyly self-deprecating awareness of his own considerable cultural impact.
The rest of the movie is a mixed bag. I quickly balked at trite animations of a rooftop saxophonist and an actual figure “straving, hysterical, naked” but by the end I was won over by the way the images carried the accumulated weight of the society Ginsberg was railing against, and the ambition of his impulse to cast off that weight.
Least successful was the courtroom drama, with the forces of censorship embodied by David Straithairn’s prosecutor clearly a straw man that posed no real threat, and Jon Hamm looking like nothing more than Don Draper moonlighting as a free speech lawyer, his hair slicked back instead of to the side.
Particularly regrettable is the choice to make Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (as Howl’s publisher, the actual defendant in the obscenity trial) into unspeaking ciphers. More drama could have been wrung from the very real ongoing threat of social repression, as exemplified by the recent string of suicides of gay teens. But the trial, and a certain smugness in Franco’s interview scenes, give the premature impression of a mission accomplished.
Howl opens tonight at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.