REVIEW: Howl

Howl
Directed by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Written by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco / David Strathairn / Jon Hamm

Written and directed by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl is a special kind of movie that espouses different filmic styles. The first ten minutes of the film set up the groundwork for the rest of the story, opening on a black-and-white scene where Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) reads the opening lines from the nominal poem in a dusky building to a rapt audience of his peers. After the line “floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz” we transition to kinetic, jazzy opening credits.

We then cut to an interview with Allen Ginsberg, this time in color, followed by the court case regarding the obscenity in his poetry in 1957. After that we jump back two years to a black-and-white Ginsberg intently typing on a typewriter, which transitions into another animated sequence, where his letters become musical notes. The opening lines of the poem are again heard, this time accompanied by an animated sequence inspired by graphic artist Eric Drooker, which attempts to bring Ginsberg’s poetry to life.

This combination of documentary, narrative, and animated styles work well as individual pieces, but are inharmonious as a whole. Epstein and Freiedman excel in their documentary look, for sure, but also during the court case. While a considerable amount of time is focused on Allen Ginsberg’s life as it pertains to his writing, Howl is not a biopic. It’s more focused on the poem itself, and the censoring of art, which it is most known for. The court case, which is at the heart of the story, is a great example of the director’s ability to make the mundane intriguing, especially with the back-and-forth between David Strathairn (Prosecution) and Jon Hamm (Defense).

During the court case, many literary critics are brought to the stand and questioned about the literary qualities of Howl, and it’s staying effect. When one critic is asked by Strathairn, “Do you understand what ‘angel-headed hipsters yearning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’ means?”, he replies with a brilliant line: “Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.” Coupled with the animated sequences used throughout the film, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of this interaction.

The animation is well done, but doesn’t belong in a film about poetry, especially one that is defended in court in this manner. James Franco’s performance as Allen Ginsberg is incredible in the way he delivers the lines from Howl. There is an energy and excitement behind every word. I love the scene near the end of the film where Ginsberg reads the “I’m with you in Rockland” portion from Howl. Franco’s reading is emotionally sparked, and is one of the finest scenes in the film. The animated sequence of this reading that was shown earlier doesn’t carry the same weight. The viewer is shown images rather than getting caught up in the rhythm, the words, and the performance. As Ginsberg says during his interview, “Poetry is a rhythmic articulation of feeling.”

It’s a feeling that begins in the pit of the stomach and rises up through the breast, and out the mouth, and…and it comes forth as a croon or a groan or a sign. So you try to put words to that by looking around you and trying to describe that’s making you sigh, to sigh in a way, you simply articulate what you feel.

Allen Ginsberg