Howl: The Movie

I caught the new film Howl, about Allen Ginsberg’s great Beat Generation poem. I thought it was very good.

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.

10 Responses

  1. I was hoping you’d seen it. I
    I was hoping you’d seen it. I think your assessment of Franco in the interview scenes is right on, but I did enjoy them, nonetheless. You know the rest.

  2. One more thing. I would have
    One more thing. I would have hated the animations less had they been in the trailer so I would have at least expected them. As it was, I had no idea they were coming and was so very shocked. So I wonder why they aren’t in the trailer to any meaningful degree?

  3. I did know about the
    I did know about the animations and won’t see the film for that reason. Cartoons are cartoons; I think Howl deserves an adult treatment.

  4. Dan, cartoons aren’t just for
    Dan, cartoons aren’t just for children anymore. I think Ginsberg might have liked the idea. Have you seen A Scanner Darkly?

    Levi, stop dissing Bob Balaban!

  5. I agree with Bill about
    I agree with Bill about cartoons. I’m thinking again about Ralph Bakshi (who I mention above) — I just remembered that his “American Pop”, a great animated movie from a couple of decades ago, also included a scene of Ginsberg, or a poet who looked a lot like Ginsberg, reading Howl.

    As for Bob Balaban, well, I’ll grant that he was great in “A Mighty Wind”. I just don’t like the way filmmakers keep using him for the same kinds of roles, in one movie after another. I don’t see how it helps the film to have viewers say, “oh, there’s Bob Balaban again”.

  6. Levi – you have to admit that
    Levi – you have to admit that the way the movie built to a crescendo at the end – the Howl reading growing more intense, the repetition of certain passages from the poem, and the trial building towards its closing arguments was quite effective, even if it just focused on the trial. For a film capturing the early Ginsberg and his growth as a poet and a person, it was quite excellent.

    I was a little shocked by the animation at first, but by the time it got to the Moloch! Moloch! part I was into it.

  7. Another thing that I flashed
    Another thing that I flashed on when the film was cutting between the Moloch! part of the poem and the animated depiction of the capitalist war machine was the great MC5 tune, “Human Being Lawnmower”….

    ….. chop chop chop chop chop chop ….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!