A Little Off the Beats...
Is it fair to say that James Franco is just too handsome to play Allen Ginsberg?
I think Ginsberg was done a big favor by having Franco play him, and in a strange way, vice versa. Few things, I imagine, would appeal more to this Avant-garde artiste than to play one of the most controversial poets of the Twentieth Century. I suppose there was no money for a William Carlos Williams biopic.
Howl is a curious film in that it is neither a biopic of Ginsberg nor a film about the actual creation of the poem "Howl", or even about the trial the poem's publication brought. It might be all three, but at times Howl itself doesn't even appear to know.
We begin with, to my mind, a rather pompous opening: "Every word in this film was spoken by the actual people portrayed. In that sense, this film is like a documentary. In every other sense, it's different". Then we plunge in. Howl jumps between a series of interviews Ginsberg (Franco) is giving to an anonymous reporter, the reciting of the poem itself, the obscenity trial of the poem's publisher, and scenes of Ginsberg's life before and after its publication. "Howl" itself is represented by a series of animated renditions depicting the words of the poem.
For my mind, Howl was trying too hard to be three films in one, and worse, each of them artsy in its own way. Writer/directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman did do some things right, so let's start there. First, we have an excellent performance from Franco as Ginsberg, although I still think Franco's too good-looking to be Ginsberg, but I digress. Franco captured Ginsberg's voice inflections and cadence brilliant to where he sounded just like the poet. Some of the animated sequences are also quite beautiful despite the words being a little risqué.
However, there is more wrong than right with Howl. First, we never get to know Ginsberg as a person. We do have scenes where he is with his buddy and fellow Beat Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotundi), all filmed in documentary-style black-and-white), and we see Ginsberg recite the poem in a club, also filmed in documentary-style black-and-white, but there are certain things not made clear.
Is Ginsberg being interviewed because of the trial or because he is an infamous poet? We don't know the context of his interview, so we don't get why his views are important. We get brief moments of his romance with his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), but I don't remember Peter speaking at all. He might have, I think he did have some dialogue, but overall he just showed up and we took it on faith that they loved each other.
I don't remember seeing or hearing much from Kerouac either.
Howl flips between black-and-white and color to signify the past/poetry reading and the present/trial respectively. Those kinds of 'artistic' touches do get distracting over time, with the animation merely enhancing the artistic ambitions of the film. In the trial section, we may have the dialogue taken straight from the transcripts, but the performances are so stilted from the two attorneys (David Strathairn and Jon Hamm). The prosecution (Strathairn) is a thoughtless boob while the defense (Hamm) rather hollow save for his intelligence in knowing "Howl" is a masterpiece.
Again and again, throughout Howl, we don't know any of our characters. We don't know why Ginsberg created such passionate following among the fellow Beats listening to his masterwork. I do confess I was expecting the listeners to snap their fingers in approval. When you don't really know what motivates our leads, either the prosecution's utter contempt and hatred for this 'dirty' writing or Ginsberg's need to create the Poem of His Generation, you have no vested interest in the end result of the trial.
Truth be told, as I listened to the poem itself, it sounded like stanzas of gibberish (I confess I still gravitate to poems that rhyme). What pushed Ginsberg to pour his soul into this confessional work? Why were people so outraged with the words? We really don't know. Above all else, this is what pushes Howl down: we never learn who the people are or what motivates their actions pro or con.
I will be honest: if I had been at Ginsberg's "Howl" recital, I probably would have fallen asleep. I didn't fall asleep at Howl, but I found little to make this an interesting film save Franco's performance.
Ginsberg may have seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, but I saw an interesting story destroyed by excessive pretensions at art.
Sorry Al, James did you a BIG favor.