Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
I had the honor to attend an advance screening of the new Ginsberg movie Howl at Boston’s MFA in which its directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, answered a few audience questions after the credits had rolled. This provided important insights into their artistic choices.
Being the type who deems style and form to be one and the same, it was with a heavy heart that I realized, within a few minutes of the movie’s opening, that the considerable risks that Howl’s directors take in presenting its subject matter would probably not amount to a cohesive whole. I wanted to love this movie with all my heart. After all, Allen Ginsberg’s poetic oeuvre, even without the vortex that is “Howl,” could practically double as my alma mater. True to form, any story that wants to encapsulate the Beat’s life will at least try to emulate their style. Epstein and Friedman take considerable pains to avoid the biopic tropes. In lieu of spanning the poet’s entire life, they frame the movie within the significant (but narrow) time period in which Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Howl”’s publisher was taken to court for publishing an apparently obscene book.
In his artfully cluttered apartment, James Franco’s bearded, bespectacled Ginsberg speaks into an unseen interviewer’s recorder about his life, his many muses, and his neuroses, in an autobiographical spew of dialogue that partly makes up for the rigid consistency of the mise en scène. It his voice that makes the movie. The directors assured the audience after the movie that Franco studied the poet’s patterns of speech as preparation for the role. It does, at first, sound like a jarringly affected actorly device, but so convincing is Franco’s Ginsberg as a person that it quite quickly seems natural.
And now on to the contentious. Scenes that display Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955 are interspersed among animated sequences that seek to show visually what Franco is so capably doing orally. The directors admitted to have been influenced by Fantasia’s mix of cartoons and classical music. It’s implementation here is not entirely successful, mostly because Howl‘s rapid-fire charge between black-and-white sequences of Ginsberg’s Beat adventures, photo montages, hallucinatory animated passages, and the painfully one-sided arguments of the obscenity trial (freedom of expression did triumph, after all) all contribute to an effect that is less rooted in the jazz idiom, as is probably the intention, than disjointed. As glib as that may sound, Howl too often buckles under the weight of its own inventiveness.