An exclamation of generational discontent rooted in the passions and turmoil of its creator, Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “Howl” today reads almost like an inevitability. It’s the work of a major poet finding his own voice while drawing on the images, experiences, and broken taboos of a bohemian subset that didn’t fit into the picture of an orderly, prosperous post-war America. In rolling, expectorant verse, Ginsberg presented the full spectrum of an underground caste, from the ecstasies of jazz musicians and gay men embracing their sexuality to the despair of burnt-out junkies and desperate madmen. It was a world that needed the right person to chronicle it, and that person emerged from its center.
“Howl” traveled an uneasy path from the literary margins to its berth in the canon, as veteran documentary directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Paragraph 175) make clear in Howl, their narrative account of the poem’s genesis and impact. The film flits between a reenactment of the 1957 obscenity case in which poet/publisher/bookstore-owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti stood trial for publishing the work, interview segments with James Franco playing Ginsberg talking about his most famous poem to a reporter a couple of years after the fact, and an animated reading of “Howl” as conceived by artist and Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker. As cinema, it’s all over the place. The trial segments feature a parade of broadly drawn straw-men bad guys and angelic supporters (played by Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, and others), but Jon Hamm and David Strathairn spar nicely as Ferlinghetti’s attorney and his oft-flustered prosecutor, respectively. In spite of some rhyming edits, the courtroom scenes feel removed from Drooker’s animation, as do the Franco segments. Howl offers three different ways of looking at the poem without tying them together particularly tightly.
The looseness never causes it to come undone, however, and each of Howl’s individual parts is pretty good on its own terms. Franco has Ginsberg’s familiar intonation and mannerisms down. Though his one-man-show-like portion only occasionally lets him suggest Ginsberg’s dramatic inner life, Franco nails the beatific glow of a man who’s learned to stop apologizing for himself, his habits, and his desires, an attitude that defined the poet’s public persona for decades. Franco is a sensitive, spirited reader of “Howl” too, capturing the undercurrent of outrageous black humor beneath its verses’ anger. (He doesn’t need the “Right on, man!” reaction shots of appreciative listeners, which Friedman and Epstein cut to a bit too often.) The animated sequences are sensitive too, offering impressions of the poem’s imagery that don’t linger long enough to literalize it. The trouble with the film is that it often feels too respectable for its own good, preserving the facts of yesterday’s rebellion while leaving it firmly in the past. Happily, Ginsberg’s words still cut recklessly through the years.