Franco Unplugged: First Impressions of Howl
Both slighter and more experimental than a traditional biopic, Howl stars James Franco as celebrated beat poet Allen Ginsberg, author of the hallucinatory epic poem from which it draws its title. It begins in 1955, with black-and-white scenes of a 29-year-old Ginsberg, chugging from a jug of rotgut and reciting -- almost davening -- his new composition to a rapt audience at San Franciso's Six Gallery. Then we cut to an older Ginsberg, in color, submitting to a Time interview about his life and craft. ("Approach your muse as frankly as you talk to your friends or self," he advises.) Franco plays Ginsberg at both ages, all creative vulnerability, tortured neuroses and submerged sexuality. When he admits towards film's end that his homosexuality, something he had resisted for years, was the "catalyst for why I'm different," you don't hesitate for a moment to believe him. And then there's those flashes suggesting intellectual brilliance -- a look, a stammer, a smile -- and the illusion that this mind could have produced a work of Howl's magnitude is complete.
Unfortunately, Howl, as envisioned by veteran doc filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is content to leave their Ginsberg under glass. His foils and sexual obsessions -- other beat gods of the era like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady -- remain mute ciphers. There are references to months spent in a Rockland Psychiatric Center, where Ginsberg met the poem's Christ-figure, Carl Solomon, nailed to a electroshock machine; we learn also of the death of his mother, in an asylum when Ginsberg was only 18. But the circumstances surrounding the creation of Howl, both societal and personal, remain frustratingly unexplored.
The film instead focuses on the poem, letting its rhythms, colors and sprawling canvas do most of the talking. Its words frequently melt away into sophisticated animated sequences that recall Fantasia and Pink Floyd's The Wall. The images are visually arresting but tend towards the too-literal.
Ironically, it's literalism that is the cornerstone of the prosecution's case in the film's ongoing obscenity trial. The prosecutor (David Strathairn) parses the meaning of "alcohol and cock and endless balls" while searching in vain for a comprehensible definition of "angelhead hipsters." Jon Hamm, in a part that is virtually indistinguishable from Don Draper, counters as the defense -- the handsome crusader for reason and free speech. A parade of familiar faces (Mary Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Jeff Daniels) takes the stand to testify for or against the work, until eventually Judge Bob Balaban rules wisely. The trial isn't particularly dramatic or interesting -- there is no Lenny Bruce present to turn this civilized discourse into a circus of the absurd -- and the sequences ultimately feel like leaden re-enactments, slowing the film down.
Howl works when it relies on its two strongest attributes -- Franco and the poem itself. Its best moments are conjured when the camera settles on his full lips as they deliver Ginsberg's verse, straight-up:
"Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole
boatload of sensitive bullshit!
Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions!
gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs!"
The earth trembles.