It is more than suitable that So independent, a film festival which randomly features fictional and documentary films in its main program, has included Howl among its selection.
Veteran documentarists Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have two Oscars at home for the documentary classics The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and The Celluloid Closet (1995), have created an unusual piece of work: a hybrid movie that seamlessly interweaves mock documentary, animation and conventional narrative film.
The film is an account of Allen Ginsberg’s creative process of Howl, one of the landmarks of 20th century’s American poetry, using four distinct narrative threads: excerpts of a mockumentary interview with Ginsberg, brilliantly played by James Franco, a description of the emotional upheaval in the poet’s life that ultimately lead to the creation of Howl, the much publicized trial triggered by 1950s America’s conservative reaction to the alleged obscenity of the poem and an animation used as background and plastic support to Ginsberg’s integral reading of the text to an elated audience in San Francisco’s Six Gallery.
The poem is deconstructed in seven sequences, around which the filmmakers interweave the biographical and courtroom scenes relevant to each part. The result is a more than satisfying genre hybrid that tells as much about the poem and its time as about its author and a part of his life.
Franco, a much better-looking man than Ginsberg ever was, convincingly portrays the poet in the documentary-style biopic fragment and in the interview, based on an actual, unpublished Time Magazine interview. The film shows in this part the influence of the likes of Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassady on Ginsberg’s work and the beginning of his lifelong relationship with Peter Orlovsky.
Eric Drooker, former illustrator of Ginsberg poems, provides the drawings for the animation oddity, an original but rather off-putting mechanism which attempts to translate into images the complex world of the written poem.
The conventional narrative piece of filmmaking is reserved to the trial scenes which, even though they border on the TV courtroom drama cliché, are a faithful dramatization of the literal transcripts of the 1957 obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the original publisher of Howl. The courtroom scenes feature a solid, all-star cast including David Strathairn as the prosecutor who clumsily tries to prove the poem’s lack of artistic merit and Jon Hamm, who plays the part of the defense lawyer as if he were taking a break from the shooting of two Mad Men episodes. Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels give brief but memorable turns as witnesses in the trial.
Howl has only a major flaw. Maybe due to its hybrid nature, the film is unable to convey to the contemporary viewer the necessary empathy they need to fully appreciate the subject-matter they are confronted with. More than half a century has gone by since the publication of Howl and we can neither be shocked by the poem nor surprised by American Puritanism by now. Our admiration of the poem or our outrage against American reaction to it (as they are shown in the film) are as genuine as the calm horror with which we watch a Holocaust film from our couch: we can understand it but we cannot feel it.
As an experimental piece of filmmaking that shies away from any form of conventional biopic, however, Howl is an engrossing account of a pivotal milestone in America’s fight for freedom of speech and an insightful portrait of one of the most renowned members of the Beat Generation.