Poetry can seriously damage your health. That’s the main thing I’ve learned from recent biopics in which Johnny Depp’s pox-ridden John Wilmot (The Libertine), Ben Whishaw’s consumptive Keats (Bright Star) and Gwyneth Paltrow’s depressive Sylvia Plath (Sylvia) have cornered the market in self-destructive behaviour. So I approached Howl, a movie about Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, it stars James Franco as Ginsberg and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as his lawyer, Jake Ehrlich. I’d watch these two ridiculously good-looking actors in just about anything, but I really didn’t want to sit through another Ode to Angst.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman — The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet – are renowned for their documentary work, and this film was originally conceived along those lines. Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl” was first published in 1955, but its explicit references to drugs and homosexuality (amongst other things) led to the prosecution of his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1957. The intention was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of those events.
But instead of a straight documentary, the film-makers have opted to show us three sides of “Howl”. There’s the poem itself, with Franco trying to channel the spirit of Ginsberg as he addresses a rapt audience, in the b/w sequences from 1955. By contrast, the trial scenes are shot in colour and feature many voices with differing opinions about the merit of Ginsberg’s work. Finally, the poet’s own thoughts are recorded by an unseen interviewer. At the centre of all this, “Howl” is also given visual form, with a series of animations created by artist Eric Drooker.
For me, the courtroom scenes are the most enjoyable and thought-provoking element of the film. A succession of expert witnesses – some pompous, some just prejudiced – try to get to grips with issues of literary merit and the nature of obscenity. David Strathairn is admirably straight-faced in the role of prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh, as he tiptoes through a minefield of sexual imagery and baffling phrases like “angel-headed hipsters”. Hamm’s tight-lipped defence lawyer brings a sense of intellectual superiority to the proceedings – he’s a crusading Don Draper with the added bonus of a moral compass.
Ginsberg himself was not on trial here and did not attend the proceedings, but the debate about whether the law is an effective tool for censoring and constraining artists remains highly topical. As one of the more thoughtful witnesses (played by Treat Williams) explains, “You can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.”
The poet’s own perspective on his life and work is captured in conversation with an off-camera reporter. A bearded, chain-smoking Ginsberg talks openly about his homosexuality, his mother’s psychiatric problems, and fellow writer Carl Solomon, to whom “Howl” was dedicated. This strand of the film was inspired by a never-published interview that Ginsberg gave to Time magazine, but the film’s dialogue is culled from a variety of sources.
Trying to explain the process of translating feelings into verse is a hard thing to pull off on film. Perhaps that’s why most film-makers prefer to concentrate on the broken marriages and substance abuse that go hand in hand with tortured literary geniuses. Epstein and Friedman, who also wrote the screenplay, have done a good job trying to condense biographical detail and literary theory into what is basically a monologue – without being pretentious or boring. Brief flashbacks of Ginsberg pounding away at his typewriter, with his friend Neal Cassady, and in bed with long-term partner Peter Orlovsky, help to round out a portrait of the artist.
The final piece in the jigsaw – the poem – is the most problematic aspect of the film. How much of the work does the audience need to hear, and how do you hold their attention through some long and difficult passages? I quickly became bored with Franco’s declamatory style, as he reads to a gathering of smug-looking hipsters at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.
When the recitation continues over Eric Drooker’s animation, the effect is even worse. It’s a matter of taste whether you thrill to the repeated imagery of fire, the minotaur-like Moloch and weirdly elongated bodies flying across the night sky. I prefer not to have someone else’s interpretation of the verse foisted on me. Archive footage from the period would have been another option to fill the gap, but overall I think the poetry should have been used more sparingly.
Howl is bold, stylish attempt to capture a period in the mid-20th century when writing poetry could be an act of political rebellion – a shot across the bows of dull, conformist, heterosexual America. By casting the handsome and charismatic James Franco as Ginsberg, the directors could have made this into yet another movie about the cult of personality. Instead they’ve largely succeeded in keeping the focus on the verse and on the act of writing. As the man said, “There’s no Beat Generation. Just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
Howl is released on DVD by Soda Pictures on 20 June 2011. A 40-minute documentary, “The Making of Howl” explores the background to the film, with contributions from Epstein and Friedman, members of the cast and crew. James Franco joins the directors in a detailed, scene-by-scene analysis on the commentary track.