Senior Editor
01.28.10 19 Comments

O victory forget your underwear we’re free, but those animation sequences sucked

James Franco stars as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, one of the higher-profile films currently playing Sundance. I expected to hate it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it’s named after a poem. Spoiler alert: I didn’t.  So why did I expect to hate it?  Let me count the ways.

  • It’s named after a poem.
  • It’s a biopic.
  • Please God not more baby boomer nostalgia.  We respect you wanting to relive the good ol’ days, pops, but it tends to get a little annoying to have to re-debate the effing sexual revolution at every city council meeting, even the ones about bus routes.  We respect the history, but at some point we’d like to redraw the battle lines to reflect things that are actually happening now, and you making 15 movies a year about Bob Dylan doesn’t exactly help.
  • Poetry readings.  Oh God, please not poetry readings.  Pretentious, attention-starved pussies sitting in a dark room verbally masturbating while their once proud art form dies one tortured mixed metaphor at a time.  Trust me, I’ve been to a few.
  • To put it in South Park terms, I did not want to see another editorial piece from “Aging Hippie Liberal Douche.”
  • Words can change the world, maaaan.

Thankfully, Howl was not these things.

As directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (pictured) were quick to point out, it’s not a traditional biopic.  Rather than taking a nauseatingly pretentious fictionalized form like, say, I’m Not There, it pulls its dialogue directly from the historical record, and consists mainly of three parts: the 1957 obscenity trial (created from actual court transcripts) against Ginsberg’s publisher, Ginsberg (as Franco) discussing his life and work through interviews and flashbacks (all taken from interviews with Ginsberg), and an animated version of the poem itself.

The first pleasant surprise was that they didn’t deify or try to mythologize Allen Ginsberg, or pack more politics onto his work than deserved to be there.  The Allen Ginsberg Howl presents isn’t a prodigy whose work “inspires a generation” or anything that’d make my dismissive wank hand twitch.  We see Ginsberg honestly struggle at his craft, at times trying to imitate and failing to impress his crush Jack Karouac, and talking about his work in a less self-important way than you might expect (at one point: “I needed another word there and, well, I guess it had to be ‘windows’, didn’t it”).

Howl doesn’t make Ginsberg out to be a guy who had a gift from God or someone who was destined for greatness.  And though I expected some heavy-handed meditation on “the power of words”, what I got instead was a focus on how you should be able to speak to your muse the same way you would to your friends.  The way Epstein and Friedman handle the trial plays up the silliness of it rather than making Ginsberg into a martyr.  And it was silly — why shouldn’t you be able to write the way you talk, with slang and cuss words and sex talk?  I can dig that, maaaaan.  (*bongo drum solo*)

The other smart thing Howl does is put Ginsberg in context.  Whereas I expected serious cafe readings and spindly hepcats in berets, Ginsberg’s audience was mostly rooms full of rowdy college kids drinking jugs of wine.  Which grounds his work — duh, of course he wrote rhythmic, narrative poems full of swear words and sexual imagery — he was trying to entertain his friends.  (He should’ve tried pulling his scrotum out of his fly and asked if anyone had tickets to the ball game, but I digress).

Oh right, what was that I said about animations?  Yeah, those don’t work.  At one point in the film, Treat Williams is on the stand being asked by prosecutor David Strathairn to explain a passage from Howl, and he says, “You can’t translate poetry into prose.”   And yet that’s exactly what the animated sequences try to do, turning Howl into the narration of some strange, CGI music video.  The very first question the filmmakers were asked during the Q & A made this exact point, and their response was that they knew it was a risk, but thought they needed a different way to present the material to keep things interesting.  Fair enough, but this wasn’t it. The drawings just seem silly, and the imagery is kind of repetitive.  How many times can we see a guy running across rooftops or the camera disappearing down someone’s throat?  It’s kind of like a dream sequence or anyone wanting to tell you about their dream: your dream better be the most whacked-out thing I’ve ever heard, otherwise I don’t care.  I get it, it was surreal, no one cares.

Anyway, like I said, a pleasant surprise, but not perfect.

Grade: B

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