Films dealing with the lives of writers have a chequered history; in order to be successful they must strike a delicate balance between highlighting the creative process and detailing the life occurring in tandem, alluding to the work while focusing on its consequences. So many of them fail to heed this injunction, as a result the raw sexuality of Henry and June (1990) and scabrous charm of Prick Up Your Ears (1987) is contrasted with lifeless duds like Nora (2000) and the numerous attempts to bring Bukowski to the screen. With the release of the documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)and an adaptation of On the Road finally coming out this year, it seems that there is renewed interest in the Beat Generation.
Howl tells the story of Allan Ginsberg’s groundbreaking poem, from its conception to the obscenity trial that followed its publication. The narrative is separated into four segments - showing the first reading of the poem, scenes from the trial, an interview with Ginsberg (James Franco) and animated sequences accompanying the recitation of the poem.
Franco’s portrayal of Ginsberg shows rare focus and maturity from an actor who has had a propensity to coast on his looks, displaying a deep respect and reverence for the role and the subject. Franco thoroughly inhabits Ginsberg, capturing his frenetic cadence and mannerisms without resorting to cheap mimicry. It is an eye-opening performance, an indication perhaps that he is not content to be a generic leading man and will use his growing star power to raise the profile of important projects in the future. Franco is ably supported by a number of talented character actors, most notably John Hamm and David Strathairn as the trial’s defence and prosecution respectively.
Franco thoroughly inhabits Ginsberg, capturing his frenetic cadence and mannerisms without resorting to cheap mimicry.
Howl is the first dramatic venture for documentary film makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, whose films The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and The Celluloid Closet (1995) are landmarks in the canon of gay cinema. Unfortunately, Epstein and Friedman do not bring the same exactitude to Howl. The film suffers from a lack of historical context, relying on a certain degree of prior knowledge on the part of the viewer. This is not a biopic but a study of a great literary work, and as such it omits a number of key events and relationships in Ginsberg’s life that don’t relate to the poem or the trial - seminal ‘Beat’ figures like Burroughs and Gregory Corso are never mentioned, for instance. The definitive dramatic portrait of this era and this movement has yet to be made.
Therese DePrez’s production design and Edward Lachman’s cinematography coalesce to great effect, rendering the early scenes from Ginsberg’s life and the reading in stark monochrome, evoking the smoky ambience of the art galleries, basement clubs and coffee shops where his vision was forged. The interview portions have an almost sepia tint to them, while the courtroom scenes are suitably austere. The animation is a feat of dark pulchritude to match Waltz with Bashir (2008), tapping into the dread, desperation, yearning and urgency of the poem, bringing Ginsberg’s vibrant flights of imagination to life.
Though sketchy at times, Howl gives some sense of the frustration with the stifling constraints of Eisenhower’s America that sparked the formation of the Beats, a group of disparate outsiders bonded by a sincere desire to escape the monotony of routine, presenting a time before youth culture was beset by irony, cynicism and despair. Galvanized by the visceral erudition of Kerouac and the manic joie de vivre of Neal Cassady, Ginsberg was transformed from a polite suburban boy scared of upsetting his father to a fearless trailblazer mapping the inner-turmoil of a generation.
Howl posits that ‘artistic merit’ is subjective, that good art transcends dispassionate analysis, using the absurdity of a trial in which individual interpretation is debated as incontrovertible fact to highlight this. Epstein and Friedman attack the elitist concern with ‘protecting the average man’ that abides to this day, a condescending belief that the general public is incapable of making informed judgments. Like all the best historical works, Howl provides a modern audience with much more than just an overview of an exceptional life; it throws timeless, universal concepts into sharp relief, reminding us that the mode may vary, but the spirit engendered by Ginsberg and the like persists.
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