Movie Review: Howl (2010)

James Franco in Howl
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Howl opened the Sundance Film Festival and wasn’t exactly met with glowing reviews. Some people came out enjoying it, but for the most part it seemed to have missed the mark. It went on to play at the Berlin Film Festival and this past Saturday it had its only screening at the Seattle International Film Festival and I wasn’t going to miss it.

Shot in color, black-and-white and including animated sequences there’s a bit of a learning curve to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman’s Howl. It doesn’t necessarily work at the start as overexcited animation featuring phallic forests and psychadellic love-making plays in the background with James Franco as Allen Ginsberg reading from the late writer’s seminal piece of poetry. Having only read Ginsberg’s “Howl” once and knowing little of the man himself, I can honestly say I was lost in terms of trying to understand what the poem was “saying” in these early moments of the film. Yet, the film wasn’t lost on me. This isn’t your normal production, so to look at it as one is to miss the point entirely.

This is a near documentary, but more importantly it’s an exploration of art through art. It takes an unconventional look at “Howl” and dissects its meaning and its influences using three separate narrative strands. About 20 minutes into Howl I was convinced I was watching a piece of art and nothing more. I felt as if Epstein and Freidman were using the silver screen as their canvas and they had splattered it with imagery and words. I was enjoying it, but I wasn’t falling head over heals for it. Then, as things progressed the pieces started coming together. I was gaining some perspective on the poem and the narrative became particularly engaging. Along with the animated sequences, which play along with Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl,” the film has two other layers.

The second layer is a faux interview Epstein and Freidman created from transcripts of several Ginsberg interviews and the idea of a rumored interview he supposed gave to TIME magazine during “Howl’s” 1957 obscenity trial, though no evidence of that interview actually exists. The third layer is that of the trial itself, claiming “Howl” should be banned, with Jon Hamm serving as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich and David Strathairn as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh.

The interview and Ginsberg’s words are where the film finds its true meaning. The honesty with which he explores the meaning of his poem. His frankness in thanking the obscenity trial for giving his poem more weight than it otherwise would’ve had is especially enlightening. We take what we can get, “There is no Beat Generation…” as Ginsberg says early in the film,”Just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”

Franco is excellent as Ginsberg, embodying the character to the point you believe him. However, this isn’t as much about Ginsberg as it is about his poem and what it symbolizes and to that extent it is where Hamm, Strathairn and Bob Balaban as Judge Clayton Horn come into play during the trial scenes. Fantastic work by all here as well as Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Alessandro Nivola as experts during the trial.

The biggest mistake you could make would be to go into Howl thinking you are in for a Ginsberg documentary. It’s called Howl for a reason. Sure, you’ll learn a little about Ginsberg’s relationships with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and his companion Peter Orlovsky, but you’ll learn of them as they pertain to Ginsberg and his path to “Howl.” Those that have a knowledge of both Howl and Ginsberg will have a much more immediate reaction to the film as it took me a little while to warm up to the content. Open and interested minds will certainly prevail with this picture. It’s a fascinating introduction to an important piece of literature, and this movie’s existence is just one more example of that.

Following Sundance, Oscilloscope Laboratories picked up Howl for distribution and will release it on demand and in New York and San Francisco theaters on September 24 with additional cities to follow.