Reviewed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Opening Sundance 2010 (and looking for distribution), “HOWL” is a film full of contradictions, wave upon wave of contrast and complication crashing over each other with undeniable power and, occasionally, incomprehensible purpose. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman interlace three separate moments surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s seminal (in every sense of the word) 1955 poem “HOWL,” giving us a reading of the poem itself, a re-creation of a 1957 interview with Ginsberg (played here by James Franco) and a re-enactment of key moments from the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial brought against publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti after “HOWL”‘s publication. There’s no scripted moments or added dialogue; everything is taken from the poem itself, the interview, or the court record.
So “HOWL” is a documentary with actors. Or a dramatic film that presents nothing more and nothing less than what actually happened. It’s a paean to the power of the spoken word that feels the need to enhance and embellish Franco’s reading of the poem with animated sequences. It’s a portrait of a long-bygone furor over a poem that invoked obscenity and homosexuality and other issues that are far from settled. It gives us mighty clashes between lawyers (David Strathairn for the prosecution; Jon Hamm for the defense) without telling us who, or why, these litigators have taken these positions. It shows a trial that in many ways ensured the fame, and infamy, of the very text it was trying to suppress. It’s an art film with big-name actors.
And while many of these contradictions and curious cases linger after the final image of the real Ginsberg reading his poetry, some of them remain as inspiration and some of them itch with the scratch of mere frustration. Yes, the sight of Strathairn upholding common decency and Hamm defending liberal freedom-of-speech, both in great retro suits, is stirring; it does not, however, tell us who Ralph McIntosh (Strathairn) and Jake Ehrlich (Hamm) were, or what motivated their decision to take the case from either side.
There are many moments like that in “HOWL,” but there are also moments of literary transcendence and visual wonder. Many of the animated sequences are clangingly literal — as Franco reads “HOWL”‘s infamous opening lines, we actually see a naked man crawl through the streets to shoot up — but there are moments of whimsy and rapture and terror, too, from a forest that reveals itself as a cluster of straining phalluses to a sequence where sainted holy madmen fly into a bronzed-bull-god building representing all of capitalism’s excesses and sins until it explodes, a scary hipster-hippie variation on the most indelible image of our time.
“HOWL” is not, thankfully, a museum piece or another shabby, shining icon of baby boomer hero-making. It looks at its own time, but you can see echoes of the here and now — how some will always rail against the unspeakable simply because they do not wish anyone to speak, how advertising seems to offer everything you might buy aside from the things you actually want, how sex freaks out America and how, when modern life drives people mad, we choose to change the people instead of modern life.
Franco’s Ginsberg is at his best in the interview sequences — candid and chain-smoking, offering how ” … there’s no ‘Beat Generation’ — just a bunch of guys trying to get published,” or saying that his poetry is the result of talking to his muse as candidly as he talks to his friends. His recitation of “HOWL” is occasionally a little too too, but, then, so was Ginsberg’s, and it somehow fits.
In the courtroom trial, a defender of “HOWL,” academic Mark Schorer (Treat Williams) butts against McIntosh’s insistence on clarity: “Sir, you cannot translate poetry into prose; that’s why it is poetry.” Leaving aside the question of if Epstein and Friedman have translated poetry into film — some will say yes, some will say no — that moment coalesced my problems with “HOWL”‘s fuzzy, freaky, just-the-facts-and-some-fantasy methodology: the end result is a film that could have used more prose to truly tell us what the poetry and prosecution both meant then, and what the poetry and prosecution both still mean now.
“HOWL” currently has no U.S. distribution.
[Photos: “HOWL,” Werc Werk Works, 2010]