Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman have crafted a surprisingly accessible and engaging story out of three narrative threads: how Allen Ginsberg wrote this poem, how Lawrence Ferlinghetti nearly went to jail for publishing it, and what the words mean. James Franco, clearly tuned in to Ginsberg’s wavelength, skillfully re-enacts the poem’s famous debut at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and the courtroom scenes that follow (with, predictably, Bob Balaban as the judge) are moving and suspenseful but also blissfully accurate and free of histrionics.
At least one person I know hated the vivid Eric Drooker animations that illustrate the poem’s words, but I thought they were fine (though Ralph Bakshi would have been an edgier choice). I can’t complain about James Franco’s well-informed impersonation of Allen Ginsberg, though having met and talked to Ginsberg a few times (I tell the story here) I don’t think Franco gets it completely right. He’s just a little too cool and relaxed for the deeply froggy, proto-nerdy Allen Ginsberg. Unlike Franco’s smooth operator, Allen Ginsberg was always hip, but he was never cool.
Still, Franco’s reading of the poem manages to bring chills, like after he tells the story of his mother’s disastrous psychoses, then speaks this line:
Ah Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really stuck in the total animal soup of time.
I had a few minor problems with the movie. At times it felt flat and informational, like a Ken Burns documentary. This was partly due to the quick cuts — courtroom scenes, simulated interview scenes, fragments from the poetry reading, Eric Drooker illustrations — that sometimes moved the story along a little too efficiently. The Ken Burns problem was also partly due to the film’s focus on one aspect of the Howl legend above all others. The Howl court trial was a historic victory for gay rights in the United States of America — the uproar was all about the gay references in the poem, after all, and Allen Ginsberg’s bravery in standing up for his rights to stand up as a homosexual poet without apology was truly heroic. But the film does emphasize this aspect of the story above all the others, and as a result is more of an edifying and historical experience than a transformative aesthetic one.
Allen Ginsberg’s poems were always meant to be transformative aesthetic experiences, and in this sense Howl: The Movie falls short of the poet’s work. The importance of the 1957 victory for gay rights in America can’t be overstated, but even so there are more sides to the poem than can be found in this movie. Even the interview sequences and the Eric Drooker animations emphasize sexual liberation as the poem’s central message. What about the Buddhist Howl? What about the punk Howl? What about the mental institution Howl? What about the Jewish Howl? What about the political dissident Howl, the homeless down-and-out Howl, the no-friend-in-the-world Howl?
Howl is an excellent movie, and I hope many people will see it. But it’s still something less than a great poem. Maybe that’s as it should be.