Nobody wants to say a disparaging word about an experimental reverie on Allen Ginsberg from the filmmaker who hit The Times of Harvey Milk out of the park. But just as directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s not-quite-docudrama thrills us with Ginsberg’s brilliance, so does it manifest the peculiar difficulty of trying to make a movie about same.
This poetically intelligent yet structurally iffy contrivance proffers a glamorized, gay-iconified Ginsberg in the form of
current zeitgeist-hog James Franco, who registers the poet’s mind and spirit strongly, if only by comprehending the accepted privilege of being a bright young thing. He’s better than one might expect. Still, just in case, the film also shrewdly draws attention away from the how-does-one-cast-Allen-Ginsberg problem by insisting that it’s not just about him but also about the legacy of his most famous work. Well, yes, wouldn’t it have to be?
Howl opens with the poet’s first public reading of the titular at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955, then flip-flops between that magic night and an unseen journalist’s interview with Ginsberg a couple of years later. It also trudges through the courtroom drama of a precedent-setting obscenity trial (with Jon Hamm for the defense), from which publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers, strangely mute) emerged victorious with a long-standing best seller.
And then there are the several silly animated rhapsodies, by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker, dramatizing the poem itself.
Why not, right? If there could be a whole movie made from 32 short films about Glenn Gould, and one with a bunch of different actors playing Bob Dylan, then surely we can sit through multiple angles on Ginsberg. It’s a clever and not-wrong-seeming strategy, but it works better in theory than in practice. People will be afraid to say they don’t get or don’t like this film, as they have been afraid to say as much about the poem.
Does that qualify Epstein and Friedman’s effort as a successful adaption? Well, one important difference is that the poem is a masterpiece.
Also, the film’s ventilated structure leaves it prone to letting important information fall through its cracks.
Ferlinghetti’s silence stands out, and probably not on purpose. Did he really not say anything during the trial? Was there a legal permission problem during the film’s production? We shouldn’t have to wonder about that.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” Ginsberg famously began, yet he found a way to end by proclaiming, “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul.” Howl should have shown us how he got there. Ginsberg once described “Howl” as “a promotion of frankness” that he considered “socially useful” for its era. This film seems similarly duty-minded. Thankfully, it has the sense to give in to enchantment once in a while as well.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
With James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm and Andrew Rogers