Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s new film Howl, is not a conventional biopic but a scrapped together, complex cine-portrait that centers on the early career of 20thcentury Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The narrative which spans only two years (1955 to 1957), though there is the occasional flashback, is pared down to essentials. Dramatizing the time when Ginsberg famously wrote his career defining poem Howl that then became subject of an obscenity trial.
Both Epstein and Friedman are acute observers of the Beat generation. Staying true to the source material that they collated from court records and interviews with Ginsberg himself, they are able to somewhat dig beneath the surface of the poets mind and words. In spite of this, for whatever reason it still at times feels insubstantial: the difference between reading a description of a picture and seeing the picture. Everything is there on paper but it remains unseen. Though they cannot be accused of taking a tired programmatic approach to the biopic genre; fusing classic documentary conventions with that of its narrative counterpart, it still sags in parts, feeling rather over-stylized and terse.
Alternating scenes of the trial, interviews with Ginsberg and the odd flashback, it is distilled to the point where there is little human interaction, thus no soul or character. Some passages from the poem is rendered by abstract animated ocular orgies by Eric Drooker, that at its best is sensually assaulting, accentuating the beauty and coarseness of Ginsberg’s words, inciting tangible emotion, but at times it feels tedious and over-baked. Perhaps the most affecting moments are the ones when Ginsberg is being interviewed by someone off screen. Maintaining an acerbic sense of humour throughout, he appears compulsively liberated yet trapped in a breathless void that stifles everything that he says. All in all it would see that the directors present the audience with a snap shot of what could have been.
Form and content aside, Howl must definitely attracted a superb cast that really got stuck in and were present at every moment. It’s a list you can dream about when making a film where the supporting characters are barely onscreen: David Strathairn (the laughable prosecuting attorney), Jon Hamm (slick, crowd pleasing defense attorney), Bob Balaban (feeble, uncertain judge), Jeff Daniels (moronic expert witness for the prosecution) and Mary-Louise Parker (same as). At the center is James Franco, who disappears in this role. There is little marked physical resemblance between the two men but all is forgiven in Franco’s performance. After seeing him in tripe like Date Night and Pineapple Express, I was wondering when he was going to do something without his bank manager’s best interests in mind. And here it is: Franco on form and electrifying.
By the end, Howl, leaves the viewer wanting, gasping for more, asking, who exactly is Allen Ginsberg?