Sadly, Howl was a film that flew right under my radar completely in 2010’s full roster of films. A film dealing with Allen Ginsberg’s life, in a nonlinear fashion, showing us his early life in the 1940’s and 1950’s, his debut performance of “Howl” at the Six Gallery Reading in 1955 and the obscenity trial that Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a part of in 1957, who was the first to publish “Howl” in “Howl and Other Poems”. This is all done via clever cinematic techniques, which was a welcome change from the usual bio-pic we’re used to in Hollywood.
James Franco is the larger than life poet Allen Ginsberg and once again shows such ease on the screen. A balance of precision, charisma and restraint, not a caricature but instead a warm embodiment of the man himself. It’s never too much on the nose, which is a welcome relief to some other docu-dramas. The reason it’s a cut above the rest is that it’s not necessarily about the man himself but is about the poem that made him famous. “Howl” is the center of attention throughout the movie, be it in the courtroom, in the reading room and even when Ginsberg is speaking to us about the impact his poem has had with the public.
Epstein and Friedman do an interesting job with this film, giving us a little of everything, so to speak, within the film. As I said above, we have Ginsberg’s early days and his first reading of the poem, which is shown partly live and partly animated. It reminds me of what they did with the Chicago 10 trial, but the only problem with it in Howl is that it takes away from the reading in general. Not sure why they chose this way, but what we get is a crowd who are eating up this poem, the vulgarity, each curse word and they’re ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’. It is like the Beatles were on stage at Ed Sullivan, which is the closest comparison I could think of while watching this scene performed.
The courtroom scene is another memorable one, with such great actors such as Jon Hamm and David Strathairn, squaring off against one another in the obscenity trial against Ferlinghetti, who published “Howl”. Even though the case is against him, again the poem takes center stage and it is instead the one on trial. It was also a statement against the other ‘Beats’ who were also facing scrutiny for their poetry. Hamm is Jake Ehrlich, Ginsberg’s defense attorney, who goes by the mantra of “Never Plead Guilty”. Strathairn is the prosecuting attorney, Ralph McIntosh, and we have this back and forth battle of what is obscene and what the public should be allowed to seek out.
Oscilloscope Laboratories has put out a stellar release, showing why they are a company to be reckoned with. Included with the stellar transfer of the film (the colors are quite amazing), you get a commentary featuring James Franco and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl, the director’s research tapes (which has interviews with various Ginsberg friends and collaborators), a 1995 reading of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg himself at the Knitting Factory in NYC and James Franco reading “Howl” in an audio feature.
It’s a film almost reaching greatness but sadly it just doesn’t make it in the long run. It’s an intriguing film, one that will have you talking about the life of Allen Ginsberg well afterward. It’s also a film that you’ll realize Hamm’s depiction of Ehrlich is a very underrated performance (and was the basis for the Perry Mason character on TV). Epstein and Friedman will be entering the Criterion Collection soon with their amazing documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, this was their first foray into feature film making, and it’s definitely a memorable one. I can’t wait to see their next film, Lovelace, another bio-pic (this time about porn star Linda Lovelace), and wonder what they will do with that one. It’s a film people should definitely check out, especially if you like the lives of the eclectic.