In an interview with Playboy magazine -- see, people do read it for the articles -- Allen Ginsberg was asked about his struggles to accept his homosexuality. His answer, recreated in the unconventional and illuminating biopic Howl, cuts to the heart of what his poems (and this movie) seek to express.
"The poems get misinterpreted as promotion of homosexuality," said Ginsberg. "Actually, it's more like promotion of frankness, about any subject." He continues, "When a few people get frank about homosexuality, it breaks the ice. Then anybody can be frank about anything. It's socially useful."
Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, making their feature debut after several superb gay-themed documentaries including The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk, Howl takes a prismatic look at Ginsberg's seminal 1955 poem and the controversy surrounding it. But while it celebrates the poem and sketches the barest outlines of Ginsberg's life, the film posits the obscenity trial that followed the publication of Howl and Other Poems as central to its legacy. It ultimately makes a case for Howl as a gift to public discourse -- for opening frank, honest, and, yes, uncomfortable discussions about sexuality, free speech and what constitutes artistic value.
In the style of the best biopics, Epstein and Friedman don't try to explain the mysteries of Ginsberg through a birth-to-death chronicle of major events in his life, approaching him from a few illuminating angles. Howl follows three different threads: An interview with Ginsberg that naturally segues into vignettes on his early life and loves and his development as a writer and poet; animated sequences that attempt to visualize the poem's wild stream of consciousness; and scenes from the obscenity trial of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The three combine in a seamless consideration of the poem's personal and social resonance, and shows the complex relationship between a work of art and people left to interpret it.
James Franco looks nothing like Allen Ginsberg -- the horn-rimmed glasses do a lot of the heavy-lifting -- but he makes sense of the casting by losing himself in the role. It would be tempting for any actor to overplay a character as rebellious and emphatic as Ginsberg was on the page, but Franco's taciturn performance speaks to the real difficulties the poet had in expressing himself fully. That "frankness" he talks about requires courage and a lack of inhibition, and Franco respects Ginsberg's reserve and resists the urge to do an actorly performance. (And based on the one audio snippet we hear of the real Ginsberg, he gets the poet's odd speech rhythms precisely right.)
Of the three angles, the animated Howl is the only one that doesn't quite work, mainly because the poem doesn't lend itself well to Pink Floyd: The Wall-style literalization. Ginsberg's free associations are often obscure and sometimes nonsensical, even by his own admission, so it seems limiting to box them into a series of images, however trippy. Epstein and Friedman's doc-like approach also results in a certain dramatic stasis; Howl is a film aimed more for the head than the gut.
Yet the courtroom scenes, based on the actual trial transcripts, bring the entire film into focus. While we're invited to scoff at the prudish squares who insist on the poem's lack of literary value, Epstein and Friedman are more interested in the strange and wondrous phenomenon of its merits being discussed in open court. The trial may seem like a sham, but in Ginsberg's words, it's "socially useful" simply for giving frankness a forum. A cynic might says that Howl owes its enduring popularity to all that free publicity; Epstein and Friedman imply that the trial was perhaps its greatest audience.