All too often as we look back through the 20th century, one period in particular receives short shrift. The ’70s were Vietnam and its fallout; the ’60s were hippies, rock and roll, and youth culture; the ’40s were World War II; and the ’50s were.. well, they were Donna Reed and My Three Sons and Leave It to Beaver. Never mind that these shows were actually made in the late ’50s and early ’60s, they’re the common cultural touchstones of the immediate post-war era. They’re the boom-time conservative commentators hearken back to.
Except they were a myth, and only one part of a much larger story. On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg organized a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. In the next-to-last slot he read his own new opus, Howl, and touched off a countercultural revolution now called the San Francisco Renaissance, and with it the “Beat Generation”.
In 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems, which was deemed obscene in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti was tried in October 1957 for publishing obscenity, and was ultimately acquitted in a victory for the ACLU which helped flesh out the application of the test advanced by the Supreme Court in that June’s Roth v. United States. Heady times indeed.
In Howl the events of the trial, some contemporary interviews of Ginsberg, and the poem itself are all woven together to present not just the work, but its context — where the poem came from, and where it was going. James Franco takes on Ginsberg’s role, and though the rest of the cast is impressive (Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels), none of them are nearly as important to the film.
The work is presented in two ways: a re-enactment of the Six Gallery reading and an animated interpretation of the content, also narrated by Franco. Unfortunately, while he does a fair job with the latter form of reading, he completely falls flat when he’s actually on screen reading from the pages in front of a smoky crowd. And it doesn’t stop there either; in the interview segments he also feels completely detached from the role. He recites Ginsberg’s words about poetry being a rhythmic expressing of feeling, and then loses both rhythm and feeling when actually reading the poem. The whole time you can almost see Franco’s giggling smirk. “Hey guys, check this out: I’m playing Allen Fucking Ginsberg. Isn’t that just wild?”
The animated segments make up for it, though. Franco’s reading still never soars the way the images do, but some of the power and dynamism is still captured. From the famous opening lines, to the fiery sacrifices to Moloch, to the psychiatric hospital of Rockland, Eric Drooker’s animations give an entirely new life to Ginsberg’s words.
The courtroom scenes also click beautifully; even though it’s lifted from trial transcripts, Hamm and Strathairn’s duel contains more poetry than Franco’s performance. Balaban fades effortlessly into the Solomonic figure of Judge Clayton Horn. And their interlocutions with a series of literary critics leave us with some amount of real insight into the state of criticism and literature at the time.
If you can overlook Franco’s performance you will find a truly original film in Howl. Just keep reminding yourself that this is more of a re-enacted documentary about the poem, and not actually a biopic of Allen Ginsberg. As the former it’s a success; as the latter it’s a failure.
Worth it: yes, with the above reservations.
Bechdel test: fail.