For the hip and formerly hip among us, here is “Howl,” a colorful docudrama with three goals. One is to present a brief biography of beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The second is to bring his most famous work, called “Howl,” to life. The third is to dramatize the criminal trial that resulted when a San Francisco bookseller published “Howl.” Co-directors Rob Epstein (“The Life and Times of Harvey Milk”) and Jeffrey Friedman were wise to include all three angles instead of focusing on one, though in the end you may find yourself wishing for more time with Ginsberg.
That’s because he’s played by James Franco, who brings the poet to life so vividly that you feel like you could spend all afternoon listening to him talk. That’s what Ginsberg does in the movie: he talks. The conceit is that he’s conversing with an unseen interviewer; all of Ginsberg’s dialogue is taken from his writings and from actual interviews. Absent documentary footage of the real Ginsberg sitting in his apartment in 1957, chatting about his work, this is the next best thing.
“Howl” is the poem that begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” It goes on to describe, in language both coarse and poetic, the things young Ginsberg had observed among his peers. People called Ginsberg and his contemporaries (Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and so forth) the Beat Generation, but Ginsberg demurs. “There is no ‘Beat Generation,'” he says. “Just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
Ginsberg got published, eventually, after toiling in bohemian obscurity the way many young artists do, with a dozen college-age kids sharing one apartment, an abundance of drugs, a dearth of consistent income. The film switches back and forth between Ginsberg recounting his biography and the court proceedings in which “Howl’s” publisher is charged with obscenity. All of the dialogue in these scenes is straight from the court transcripts, providing a fascinating glimpse into legal history.
It’s hard to believe that there was a time in America when you could be brought up on criminal charges for publishing “obscenity,” much less that this time was only half a century ago. But that’s what happened to Lawrence Ferlinghetti (played by Andrew Rogers), whose 1957 trial dazzled and titillated America. The question came down to this: Regardless of how “dirty” the poem might be, does it have any redeeming social value?
The prosecutor, Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn), calls literary experts to testify about the poem’s lack of merit. One of them, a professor played smugly but not implausibly by Jeff Daniels, asserts that since the form of “Howl” is derivative of other works, it is therefore useless as literature. McIntosh acknowledges that he’s no scholar, not much of a poetry man, and humorously asks witnesses to explain what certain key phrases — most of them sexual in nature — mean. “Sir,” one of the witnesses protests, “you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.”
The defense attorney is played by Jon Hamm, who imbues the role with his customary tight-jawed righteousness. Other participants in the reenactment include Mary-Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, and Bob Balaban (as the no-nonsense judge).
Interspersed with all this are scenes of Franco as Ginsberg reading “Howl” aloud at a gallery in San Francisco in 1955, to a crowd of appreciative young people. The directors use animations to illustrate the poem, and while purists may object to “Howl” being taken so literally, most of the animations are as abstract and ethereal — as jazz-like — as Ginsberg’s words are.
Since the film is doing several things at once, it’s almost inevitable that it will not do all of them excellently. The biographical sketch of Ginsberg is engaging enough to leave one wanting to see a fully formed biopic, preferably starring Franco; the court proceedings are interesting, but perhaps more as a historical artifact than as entertainment. What comes through loud and clear, though, is the power of words. For a movie — a visual medium — to convey the majesty and importance of language is no small feat.
B (1 hr., 30 min.; )