Howl is the fictional feature debut of documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The film tackles the life of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, centring on the writing of his four-part poem “Howl”, a recitation of the same poem and its eventual trial on a charge of obscenity. Interspersed between these sequences are faux interviews with Ginsberg, as played by James Franco, and animations that visualize the poem itself.
Howl is a film with many strands running through it, with leaps backwards and forwards in time throughout. Ginsberg’s past before “Howl” is played out in black and white in order to help the audience distinguish between this timeframe and the post-obscenity trail colour sequences in which an apparent documentary crew are interviewing Ginsberg. In many ways, the film is both a conventional biopic and a documentary, similar to last year’s The Arbor, in which the real person is not being interviewed but rather an interpretation of the real person. It also has links with Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch, an adaptation of Burroughs’ unfilmable Beat novel, which used the author’s life as much as the novel as its source. At the beginning, the film informs us that the interview scenes are based on things that Ginsberg actually said in real discussions, and that the animations are based on those devised by Ginsberg himself. In this sense, the film takes on a variety of forms, which is underpinned in the courtroom discussions of the form of literature. It is also this experimentalism that keeps the film afloat.
The film has a lot packed into it for its 84 minute running time. It constantly feels like it needs to rush to fit everything in. Its opening credits speed around in all directions, barely masking its need for speed under the pretence that it is emulating the uncaring joviality of the ‘angel-headed hipsters’ it depicts. The courtroom scenes are interesting as courtroom scenes always are, but the problems are more evident in the scenes in which Ginsberg actually writes his poem. Unfortunately, the film seems all too aware that people writing does not make for cinematic gold, straining itself to address this with several seemingly impromptu animations. These sequences are literal adaptations of the poem itself but feel forced and too self-consciously ‘offensive.’
The film’s speed and fear of being dull hampers the performances, which are never given the time and the space to become convincing. In the end, Franco is as chopped about as he is in 127 Hours and Jon Hamm does another Mad Men-like monologue without the benefit of any emotional involvement on the part of the audience. We don’t really get to feel like we have gotten inside the heads of any of the characters. The recitation sequences in which Franco reads “Howl” with vitriolic yells and the audience cheer and applaud acts neither as a celebration of artistic integrity or freedom of speech, but as a reminder of similar scenes in Roger Corman’s schlocky masterpiece A Bucket of Blood, in which Julian Barton hilariously parodies the Beats, wearing a tuxedo and sandals.
This is not to say that the film does not have its moments, over and beyond the formal experimentation. The courtroom scenes are very entertaining and easily the best parts of the film. The faux interviews are heavily edited, but every once in a while something genuinely intriguing is said. The film works best in its simple moments of courtroom suspense, but can also, almost accidentally, inspire the viewer to read a challenging book or to be creative themselves, just for the hell of it.
Howl is a hard film to dislike but as something of a debut it has its problems. An interesting though flawed work.