James Franco, 2010’s most oddly ubiquitous entertainer, played two real life figures onscreen last year: poet Allen Ginsberg and survivalist Aron Ralston. While Ginsberg is presumably still the better known name, far more moviegoers checked out 127 Hours than Howl, the little seen biography about the Beat founding father from acclaimed documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Although Howl marks the duo’s narrative film debut, they break from traditional biopic form by utilizing a unique mix of documentary-style interviews, Hollywood-style courtroom dramatics and animated sequences to depict the inspiration behind, creation of and aftermath of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl.” While pretty boy Franco is a somewhat odd choice to play the less-than-beautiful, but never less-than-charismatic Ginsberg, the actor adeptly portrays the poet’s repressed romantic yearnings, heartbreak over friend’s and family’s treatment by mid-century mental health professionals and, most importantly, his electrifying ability to manipulate the English language. The film itself, however, is a mixed bag: poetic where it should be prosaic; diffuse where it should be focused. My review after the jump:
It opens in 1955, with young Ginsberg reading “Howl” to a San Francisco coffee shop full of hipsters. It then jumps back in time to illustrate the road trips, love affairs and personal tragedies that inspired the epic poem. Familiar Beat figures such as Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac pop up briefly, giving us impressionistic glimpses of the possible dynamic between the original Beats. Ginsberg’s brief, tentative love affair with Cassady offers a nice little snap shot of gay romance in the pre-liberation era.
The film’s primary focus, however, is the 1957 trial in which “Howl” and its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, were put on trial for obscenity. Since Ginsberg himself was not charged with obscenity, Franco is absent from these courtroom scenes. Filling the acting void is an impressive line-up of thespian stalwarts, including David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck) as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, Jon Hamm (TV’s “Mad Men”) as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich and Jeff Daniels (Pleasantville), Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s “Weeds”), Treat Williams (Franco’s daddy in 127 Hours) and Alessandro Nivola (Coco Before Chanel) as witnesses for the prosecution or defense. The trial scenes are based verbatim on courtroom transcripts, giving modern viewers an amusing taste of former social mores. The absence of Franco from these scenes, however, does make the film feel a bit diffuse and made me long for a more focused biopic on Ginsberg’s epic life and poetry.
The least effective sections of the film, however, are the animated sequences that accompany Franco’s reading of all four parts of “Howl.” Although the animation is sometimes inventive and striking, poetry is designed for unfixed visual interpretation. During these sequences, I was tempted to shut the film off, dig out my copy of Ginsberg’s poetry and drift into the world of “Howl” on my own imagined terms. Then again, if the filmmakers’ goal was to inspire a re-reading of Ginsberg’s work or invoke general interest in the late great American poet, I’d say they’ve succeeded.
It’s no surprise that the Howl Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack comes loaded with fantastic bonus features, since Epstein and Friedman are legends in the world of documentary film. They expand on Howl’s brief, eighty-four minute universe with the comprehensive making-of documentary “Holy, Holy, Holy! The Making of Howl.”
Additional bonus features include their audio commentary with star Franco; their shared research tapes featuring original interviews with Ginsberg’s friends and collaborators Eric Drooker, Peter Orlovsky, Tuli Kupferberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Steven Taylor; never before seen footage of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in 1995 at the Knitting Factory in New York; and, finally, an isolated recording of James Franco reading “Howl.”
Exclusive bonus features on the Blu-ray include Ginsberg reading “Sunflower Sutra” and “Pull My Daisy” at that same 1995 Knitting Factory event and a Q&A with directors Epstein and Friedman moderated by John Cameron Mitchell at the Provincetown Film Festival.
The Blu-ray Disc’s 1080p high definition picture shows off the nicely textured work by cinematographer Ed Lachman (Far From Heaven, The Virgin Suicides), while the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 makes Franco’s poetry readings and Carter Burwell’s (True Grit, Where the Wild Things Are) jazzy score pop. Disc subtitle options include English and French.
While not the comprehensive biopic I was hoping for, Howl is an engaging enough meditation on Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his most famous poem.