By Matt Connolly
Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, U.S., Oscilloscope Laboratories
“Sir, you cannot translate poetry into prose,” remarks academic Mark Schorer (Treat Williams) during a section of Howl covering the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous poem. “That’s why it is poetry.” Schorer is commenting upon the prosecutorial style of San Francisco attorney Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn), whose case against the controversial piece involved asking “expert witnesses” to concretely define the various sexual allusions and lyrical abstractions that Ginsberg liberally sprinkled throughout his masterwork. However, he could very well be referring to the plight of writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, whose film attempts to tease out the legal, social, and biographical significance of Ginsberg’s groundbreaking generational ode without explaining away its propulsive, elusive essence. Documentarians whose previous films chronicled such LGBT topics as queer representation in American cinema (The Celluloid Closet) and the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany (Paragraph 175), Epstein and Friedman have publicly stated their desire to forego in Howl the talking-heads-and-archival-footage approach in favor of something more diffuse and allusive. This turns out to be a triptych structure, which interweaves a re-enactment of the 1957 obscenity trial; an imagined interview with Ginsberg (James Franco) occurring at roughly the same historic moment as the trial, accompanied by brief flashbacks to Ginsberg’s younger self; and a recreation of Ginsberg’s original reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. As Ginsberg recites the poem onstage, surrealistic animated interludes illustrate its images and ideas.
It’s a noble effort, but all the well-intentioned narrative curlicues in the world cannot obscure the conceptual dullness at Howl’s center. For what does this refracted take reveal to us about “Howl”? Well, that its author fits snugly into a long cinematic lineage of scruffy yet photogenic outsiders, all of whom spin personal suffering into artistic gold. Young people and liberal-leaning academics tend to “get” form-pushing literary works, while stodgy old folks scowl and raise an eyebrow. Oh, and censorship: definitely not a good thing. Such points certainly allow modern audiences to feel good about themselves, given that Howl simultaneously positions us as awestruck witnesses to the moment of Ginsberg’s artistic triumph and tongue-clacking spectators at the obscenity trial so clearly presided over by unenlightened fuddy-duddys. But mixing literary quasi-hagiography with pro-First Amendment boilerplate hardly seems in keeping with the funny, revealing, furiously intelligent poem the film takes as its subject and purported muse. That Epstein and Friedman devote much of their film to Ginsberg reading large chunks of “Howl” only underscores the disparity between source material and end product, even as it also reveals the adoration that the filmmakers clearly feel towards the text.
This admirable yet hopelessly prosaic attitude comes through with particular clarity in the trial scenes, in which the defendant was not Ginsberg but Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), a Bay Area publisher arrested for selling obscene material after his City Lights house released “Howl.” Prosecutor McIntosh and defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) cross-examine four witnesses whose opinions on “Howl” cut neatly down the middle. Teacher and radio personality Gail Potter (Mary-Louise Parker) derides the poem on grounds of morality and taste, while English professor David Kirk (Jeff Daniels) haughtily dismisses the work as an uninspired attempt at reviving defunct Dadaist literary traditions. Across the aisle, Luther Nichols (Alessandro Nivola), book critic for the San Francisco Examiner, and Schorer praise Ginsberg’s unorthodox form and provocative social commentary. Schematic debates about the value of “indecent” language and literary expression follow, with pro-“Howl” individuals painted as paragons of forward-thinking artistic appreciation and those against sketched in broadly dismissive terms. In fairness to their seemingly stacked deck of a script, Epstein and Friedman apparently transcribed the dialogue in these sequences verbatim from the actual court transcripts. No such reasoning, however, explains the dutifully one-sided approach they take to this section. Note how Epstein and Friedman have almost all camera angles originating from the defense’s side of the court, all the better to subtly frame Ehrlich in ennobling low angle shots and minimize McIntosh in his corner of the room. Performances follow suit, with Hamm espousing free speech principles in his best Don Draper baritone, and Nivola and Williams furrowing their brows thoughtfully. Parker and Daniels have a ball making their characters’ single-minded obtuseness eminently clear, but only Strathairn finds any nuance here. McIntosh’s guarded admission about just how little he understood of “Howl” grounds his literal-minded crusade in a poignantly funny sense of intellectual and cultural inadequacy, and reveals more about the anxious origins of censorship than Parker and Daniels’ amusing but empty bits of prestige-pic chest-puffing.
If Howl’s bids for cultural relevancy fall short, its attempts to visually “poeticize” Ginsberg’s words via phantasmagoric animated sequences carry a similarly unfortunate whiff of undercooked ambition. Created by artist Eric Drooker (who previously collaborated with Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems, an illustrated collection of Ginsberg’s work), the animated segments have a vividly saturated texture and dreamlike logic in keeping with Ginsberg’s emphasis on the explosion of multifaceted imagery over straightforward narrative. An unnamed Ginsberg avatar floats through a churning menagerie of looming urban side streets and starry night skies, complete with pulsating orgiastic symbols and orifices of several shapes and sizes intended to remind you of the unbridled sexual energy that so unnerved—and excited—readers upon “Howl’s” release. Yet these sequences rarely stand on their own. Epstein and Friedman almost always pair them with the spoken text itself, never allowing Drooker’s imagery—which, admittedly, just as often hues toward the literal-minded as the abstract—to escape its presumed role as visual aid. Indeed, one always gets the sense that the animation’s inclusion comes from a place of directorial anxiety, as if the filmmakers thought about endless close-ups of Franco-as-Ginsberg reading from his podium and fretted, “But is it cinematic enough?”
Actually, Howl’s best sequences are its simplest. The film opens with Ginsberg beginning to recite his work on the Six Gallery stage. As he tentatively works his way through the opening passages, DP Edward Lachman’s handheld camera stays close to Franco’s face, catching the flickers of hesitation that slowly melt away as the crowds’ uncertain response gives way to rapt smiles and cheers. You can chart it in Franco’s vocal mannerisms, which more confidently embody the incantatory rhythms of Ginsberg’s voice as the film progresses. He’s particularly adept at capturing how Ginsberg finishes lines, the sentence not coming to a decided end but left hanging in the air for further scrutiny, somewhere between a question and an exclamation. This section of Howl feeds upon the authenticity fetishist in all of us. Shot in smoky black-and-white—each section of Howl has a distinctive color palette, much like the other Lachman-lensed portrait(s) of an artist, I’m Not There—it plays upon the thrill of being present at the scene of a cultural shockwave, and perhaps unsurprisingly treats it with fawning adoration. (Needless to say, there are no scowling faces in the Six Gallery crowd in Epstein and Friedman’s re-telling.) Still, to watch the faces in that room as it slowly dawns upon everyone—Ginsberg included—that they are witnessing something special is to give back “Howl” some of its pre-canonical excitement.
Watching both these scenes and the staged interview sequences that take place inside Ginsberg’s apartment, one remembers that sometimes the most “cinematic” of choices can be those that simply utilize film’s power of patient observation. Ginsberg answers a variety of questions from unseen interviewers, ranging from a childhood shadowed by memories of his mentally-ill mother to his days with fellow Beat poets—and objects of Ginsberg’s affection—Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott) to his ruminations of his own writing style and practice. Throughout, Epstein and Friedman film Franco in fairly-standard medium close-ups, appropriating the documentary syntax they have used so often in the past. The point, however, is not a Haynes-ian deconstruction of the boundaries separating reality and façade. Rather, Epstein and Friedman seem most interested in using the camera to capture what they have quite successfully in their documentaries: the nuances of the human face as individuals reflect upon their everyday lives and dreams. More than their aforementioned historical films, one thinks back to Where Are We? (1993), Epstein and Friedman’s chronicle of their journeys throughout the South and the people they met along the way. What one remembers from that pocket-sized travelogue of a movie is not so much what people say but how they look as they say it, and the way their facial expressions and body language work to complement or belie the stories they tell us (and themselves). The camera becomes an empathetic observer, knowing how long to hold its gaze to get at the heart of what its subject is thinking or feeling.
Such rhythms might very well have been scripted in Howl, but it feels beside the point when you are watching it. As he winds his way through anecdotes and remembrances, the filmmakers hint at the working of Ginsberg’s mind by holding on the way Franco pensively draws a cigarette to his lips, or the way his eyes hazily squint as he recalls the Beat generation as “just a bunch of guys, trying to get published.” It’s a constructed familiarity, of course, and one cannot help but to catch themselves playing the biopic game of charting how closely Franco captures Ginsberg’s verbal and physical tics. But in its stripped-down aesthetic, these scenes give us a sense of Ginsberg—sly, reflective, touched by melancholy—that enriches our understanding of the man and his work on a more intimate level. (It perhaps goes without saying that this is equally a compliment to Franco’s restrained performance.)
Indeed, it might have been more of a stylistic gamble to build a film around such scenes than the multifarious approach ultimately taken in Howl. It certainly would have brought to the fore the strengths and limitations of reconstructing/inventing historical moments on screen, while using the faux-documentary format to achieve an even greater sense of closeness with the artist and his work. As it stands, the various moving parts in Howl rarely speak to each other in an enriching or challenging manner. The only thematic strand of note is the emphasis upon Ginsberg’s homosexuality and its manifestation throughout his poetry. When so much of the cultural narrative surrounding the Beat generation remains one of cigarette-smoking straight guys writing about their various sundry travels and the women they met along the way, the foregrounding of Ginsberg’s gayness, how it found its way into his work, and how it lay at the heart of so much public discomfort with “Howl” is valuable. (It’s also a bit disappointing, then, to see his relationship with long-time partner Peter Orlovsky, played by Aaron Tveit, reduced to a few brief scenes of lounging in bed and nuzzling in the park, with Orlovsky portrayed as a wordless hipster-cherub in a wool cap.) Besides that, however, what comes through most clearly in Howl are the strained attempts of two talented filmmakers to grapple with Ginsberg’s work: a struggle that often leaves them adrift and settling for simplistic ideas to keep them afloat. The result leaves one feeling informed but not enlightened, cognizant of artistic gambles but only recalling well-intentioned pieties: I’m Not There as directed by Stanley Kramer.