Howl‘s filmmakers made a risky choice that pays off and a safe choice that doesn’t. The risky choice is to make the film about a poem, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, not a conventional biopic of Ginsberg or a courtroom drama about the famous obscenity trial. This is risky because poetry is not embraced by the mass audience; in our culture, poetry makes opera look like NASCAR in terms of popularity. Yet the movie is at its strongest in the segments where James Franco’s Ginsberg reads from Howl. The poem Howl – with its pain, rage, alienation and rebellion – is the best part of the movie Howl. Snippets of Ginsberg’s life and the trial are placed about to give context to the poem.
The unfortunately safe choice is using animation to interpret the poem. The poem evokes powerful imagery in the minds of the audience. Here, the animation is very literal, so we see – and are distracted by – the images instead of thinking them up ourselves. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t think that the audience would accept the unadorned reading of a poem. Howl is a long poem, but the filmmakers do an effective job in delivering it to us in segments. The language of the poem is not a shocking today as it was in the 50s, but definitely gets your attention.
Franco is great. Jeff Daniels has a small juicy part, but David Straithern, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Bob Balaban, Treat Williams and Allesandro Nivona don’t have much to do.
The writer-directors here are Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who made the Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk., which is one of the great documentaries and one of the great political films.