Last Spring I was invited to a screening of HOWL, the movie, but asked not to write about it on this blog until it came out in the Fall, in fact, today.
I guess they were screening it so early in hopes of creating some kind of word-of-mouth build up of anticipation. But what it really led to was my memory of the film being a bit faded by now.
I can still highly recommend it for a few simple reasons.
First, it's the only film I know of based entirely on a single poem. That alone makes it worth seeing just for the exceptionalism of it.
In fact the structure of the movie is basically the reading of "Howl"—the poem that made Ginsberg famous and brought attention to the whole burgeoning "Beat" scene, i.e. Ginsberg and his friends—and it mostly works as a movie despite that enormous challenge.
The reading is interspersed with excerpts from later interviews with Ginsberg and with scenes of the 1957 "obscenity" trial of the book HOWL AND OTHER POEMS published by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights. It was that "obscenity" charge and the trial that made the poem and poet just about household names at the time.
That's how the teenager I was at the time first heard of Ginsberg and "Howl." If I remember correctly, TIME magazine quoted some profanity-free lines from it, that were still powerfully unexpected and revelatory opening me and so many others up to possibilities for writing poetry we had never thought of, let alone viewing my life and the times I was living in drastically differently.
The movie has every word of the poem in it, Franco reading them as Gisnberg reading to a small audience of San Franciscans, including some of the more famous early cohorts in the whole "Beat" thing, as it became known, and he gets so much of it right, it's like performance art.
The trial scenes make for a more dramatic commentary on the poem and work for the most part as well, with John Hamm as the defense lawyer and David Striathorn as the prosecutor without a clue. It's a terrific snapshot of the times and the about to burst bubble of 1950s conformity and repression that eventually led to the "'sixties" and a few actors shine in their roles as the real people involved saying the real lines, verbatim as they say, from the trial. Jeff Daniels is, as always, a revelation, an amazingly underrated actor because so many of the characters he has played don't come across as seriously dramatic as the usual suspects.
I'd like to see John Hamm do Kerouac in a film that included Jack's influence on Ginsberg and the rest of the so-called "Beats" and on the poem "Howl" etc. Kerouac and Neal Cassady were weak points in the film, having no lines and the actors playing them seeming totally miscast to me.
I understand the directors' (Rob Epstein nd Jeffrey Freidman) probable desire to not pull focus from Ginsberg and his poem by including any of Kerouac's or Cassady's words from letters to Allen or from interviews, but casting the almost beautiful Franco as Ginsberg and a couple of nondescript actors as the ruggedly charismatic Cassady and movie-star handsome Kerouac seems disengenuous at best and deliberate at worst.
As for James Franco. I love Franco's film acting but doubted he could pull off playing Ginsberg, who I knew and was friendly with, since Franco is more handsome than James Dean (another iconic 1950s figure he's played) and even though Allen had deeply attractive, even beautiful you could say, eyes and knew how to use them, he was no matinee idol.
But Franco pulls it off. For the first minutes of the film I wondered if he could do it, even with the '50s style haircut and heavy black framed glasses and something behind his ears to make them stick out more and an obvious attempt to capture Ginsberg's voice and gestures, but then...
...I was hooked and Franco became, in more ways than mere imitation, the poet himself.
So it's also worth seeing this film if you love good film acting as I do, and even more so if you know something about acting. It's a tour de force award-deserving performance.
The one thing about the flick that I haven't read much about in all the reviews and articles that have come out about it since I saw it last Spring (guess those writers didn't get the "wait until September 24th" memo) is the animation part.
In order to make the reading of a very long poem palatable to a movie audience, many of the most famous lines of the poem are animated in a style that is relatively generic and becomes pretty repetitive after a while. Some of the correspondences between some lines and the animation work so well it's breathtaking.
But some become too repetitive and fall way short of the power of Ginsberg's images and emotion, while others just made me laugh with pleasure at the creativity of the juxtapositions. It's interesting that in the official trailer below, they don't include almost any of the animation at all, though it takes up what seemed like at least a third of the film.
But no matter what minor quibbles I might have, the main point I'd like to make is that this movie is a one-of-a-kind event. Don't miss it.