REVIEW: Howl Gives Allen Ginsberg's Funky Genius the Collage Treatment
Filmmakers feel an understandable urge to rise to the occasion when committing the lives of '60s saints and mold-busting mavericks like Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg to the screen. Dylan got Todd Haynes's 2007 deconstruction of the biopic, I'm Not There (in which David Cross appears as Ginsburg in an indelible cameo). And now Ginsberg is the subject of Howl, a collagist treatment of his creation myth. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman began their account of the conception of Ginsburg's titular declamatory opus and the 1957 obscenity trial that followed its publication as a straight documentary. After roughing out the usual talking heads and archival footage, it became clear to the directors of The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein only) and The Celluloid Closet that the best way to honor their subject was to get a little funky.
The result is more fancy than funky, but the directors' aim is true and occasionally hits its mark. Epstein and Friedman fuse elements of documentary, feature filmmaking, and animation to home in on how Ginsberg wrote "Howl," and why it made him famous. Ironically, that second half of the Ginsberg equation -- his cultural impact and influence -- is more aptly illustrated by the recreated trial than by Eric Drooker's heavily literal, art deco accompaniments to the verse. The film moves between evocations of the poem as it existed in Ginsberg's world (he is played in black-and-white flashbacks and a trial-era interview by a twinkly, spectacled, closely cropped James Franco), the ecstatic nerve it touched in the literary consciousness (ostensibly the animations), and its role as fodder for censorship pedants and bigots in the courtroom. Often passages from the poem (which is recited almost in its entirety) are repeated in each forum, an attempt to breathe three-lunged life into a work that seems to have been wheeling along just fine on its own.
A re-creation of Ginsberg's first, notorious reading of the poem to a select group of café beatniks (including Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, who are depicted here as mute, angel-headed hipsters and objects of Ginsberg's unrequited devotion) is not surprisingly the most hospitable environment for the poem itself. Franco makes a valiant attempt at Ginsberg's pseudo-rabbinical delivery, occasionally locking into persuasive registers of joy, mischief, and abiding sorrow. The direction is listless, however, and is content to suggest the building energy of the room with showy cuts to glowing faces in the audience.
Early on in the interviews, in which Ginsberg speaks to an unseen interlocutor about his past (including his mother's mental illness, his own stint in a psychiatric hospital, and his grappling with his sexual identity), he admits that he has to thank the obscenity charge and the ensuing trial of his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who is also seen but not heard) for his fame. I didn't mind the frequent returns to the courtroom, where prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn), defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban) and an assortment of unlikely expert witnesses (literary critics played by Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, and Mary-Louise Parker in a butterscotch wig) battle over the terms of literary merit. Part of the film's project is an investigation of whether we can separate a now-iconic work like "Howl" from both its era (amusingly, one critic is asked to state for the record whether it will stand the test of time) and its reception. The specious courtroom operatics are shown to be part of Ginsberg's legend but also an extension of the performative, provocative work itself. Certainly Ehrlich's closing statement (all of the dialogue was taken directly from transcripts) is pure poetry.
The poem as personal jeremiad and public catharsis was an innovation that broke down more than taboo barriers against bad words and homosexual urges; it helped to usher in an era of personal writing that foreran everything from the new journalism to the memoir boom. Having talked of the way his peers fail themselves by trying to write like somebody else, thereby precluding "everything that makes them interesting in conversation," Ginsburg suggests that it was probably "socially useful" to encourage others to write about their feelings and expose their true selves. That's a point that expert witnesses will argue from here until eternity, but it is also largely overlooked that Ginsberg -- with his confessional style and buoyant, self-defining shout-outs -- was one of the first to make it. Observations like that one made me wish that in crafting their time capsule of a precipitous moment in the life of a poet and the tides of literature, the directors of Howl had cleaved a little closer to its actual source than its nominal one.