Directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Starring James Franco, Aaron Tveit, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Prescott, Alessandro Nivola, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams Club, QFT, Belfast; IFI, Dublin, 85 min
Howlis poetry in motion, an audacious, beboppin’ biopic, writes TARA BRADY
WRITTEN IN 1955, Alan Ginsberg’s Howlheralded the arrival of the Beat Generation, a lost postwar tribe of bebop wordsmiths. A sprawling, bawdy, existential snarl, the epic three-stanza poem would, among other things, change indie cinema forever.
How different might a typical Sundance programme look, both in form and content, were it not for the trippy, American milieu of Ginsberg’s devising? Quite apart from stylistic influences, he and his literary associates – a loose constellation of hip priests and romantic ne’er-do-wells – have, over the years, inspired a deluge of cinematic tributes. William S Burroughs’s Naked Lunchwas a 1991 arthouse wow for David Cronenberg. Francis Ford Coppola has been attached to a film version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Roadfor most of his adult life.
Howl, a tremendous new film from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, is quite unlike any of the many adaptations, biopics, documentaries and lo-fi portraits that have gone before. The premise is simple yet quietly bold: Howlis a film of the poem.
The very notion triggers a rush of analogies involving fish and bicycles; the medium built around car chases is nobody’s idea of an appropriate bedfellow for the medium suited to golden daffodils. But this is “The Poem That Changed America”, and an extraordinary subject calls for extraordinary measures.
It helps that James Franco puts in an affecting, meticulous turn as the counter-cultural provocateur. Other notable Beat icons, including Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), Peter Orlovski (Aaron Tveit) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), flit in and out of the young Ginsberg’s life as he grapples with homosexuality, family psychoses, peyote, Judaism and jazz.
Ginsberg purges himself, finally, at the famous 1955 reading at Six Gallery, with a fevered homage to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It doesn’t take long for the thought police to move in on a work detailing madness, heroin and random favours from sailors.
Even narcs should delight in he film’s elegant dramatisation of the obscenity trial brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poem’s US publisher. A starry cast populates the courtroom scenes: David Strathairn and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm (never better) play the warring lawyers; Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels are mean- spirited naysayers; Alessandro Nivola provides the literary defence. Elsewhere, an older, calmer Ginsberg (Franco again) picks over allusions and recalls the fuss with some bemusement.
Rhythmic editing and art director Eric Drooker’s pretty, if occasionally literal-minded, animated segments serve to illustrate selected incantations between the temporal skips. Academically inclined punters will note Howl’s user-friendly presentation of the three Rs of literary criticism (reading, writing and reception) encoded into the structure. Others will be none the wiser.
The film’s experimental leanings are seldom apparent and never fore-grounded. Its use of poetry as punctuation is rousing in a way that recalls John Williams as much as Stan Brakhage. Ginsberg’s most cherished refrains – “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and “I’m with you in Rockland” – swell up like stadium rock anthems. If you don’t know the chorus, a lighter will suffice.
For all intents and purposes this is a perfectly accessible, straight-world historical drama. If anything, it’s a little too restrained. Frequently the viewer is reminded of the pristine, otherworldly beauty of Tom Ford’s A Single Man,only to wonder, where has all the obscenity gone? Shouldn’t somebody be down an alley with some of Ginsberg’s “saintly motorcyclists” by now?
It hardly matters. Howl’s neat, happy resolution and tasteful visuals are not, admittedly, entirely in keeping with history. It’s just a movie, not a poem after all. But it’s a damned close run thing.