Is "Howl" More Of A Squawk?
(USA, 2010, 90 min)
This film was seen at Outside the Box Office, part of the USC School of Cinematic Arts free film screening program. For the current calendar, click here. To join their mailing list, click here.
Not so much a howl, as it is a squawk: If it isn't possible to turn poetry into prose, then is it possible to turn poetry into a visual medium? This is the biggest challenge faced by the filmmakers of "Howl."
And unfortunately, the answer here is no.
The biopic based on Allen Ginsberg's seminal poem "Howl," runs three parallel sections; namely Ginsberg reading "Howl" aloud to an audience for the first time and interviews with him, animation explicating each line of "Howl," and finally the trial that surrounded the publishing of the poem. The filmmakers move back and forth between these threads, with some scenes in black and white- and that is the film in its entirety.
Even armed with a solid cast, including David Straitharn, and Jon Hamm, the film essentially fails in its style. This is because it fails to make us care. In that sense, the audience is lost. There is no background given to any of the characters, or any context set about the trial. Instead, it heads straight into the above thread, thus presupposing knowledge from the audience. Who was Neal Cassady, who was Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Why is Jack Kerouac essential to this story? These are bits of information left out, and if you are a stranger to the beat generation, this film will lose you completely.
As someone fully aware of Ginsberg's life and his work, it seemed to me that no effort was put into the storyline, in fact, the film seems devoid of narrative structure altogether. And as the freshman sitting next to me (who only watched the film because she thinks James Franco is "hot") noted, the film taught her very little about Ginsberg.
In this sense, it loses a significant portion of its audience, or any hope of gaining new fans.
The film is directed by Rob Epstein ("Milk") and Jeffrey Friedman, with Gus Van Sant onboard as executive producer. After the first half-hour, the point comes across clearly, then it is hammered into your head repeatedly until the end of the film.
How does somebody who once played James Dean, end up playing Allen Ginsberg, the latter of whom was known for his goofy and often unattractive allure. Even as a younger, less-hairier Ginsberg, James Franco is unconvincing despite his efforts. He has his accent changed to a heavily stylized New York accent, thick-rimmed glasses and hair often dishevelled, but one is constantly aware that this is James Franco.
He does his best in terms of the performance but this never results into making him believable as Ginsberg.
The animation was done by Eric Drooker, a man who worked with Ginsberg when he was alive. However, somehow the 2D-fantasia comes across as more a literal child-like matching to poetry rather than a dream of "Howl."
The visuals form a surrealistic accompaniment to the poem, of course with loads of phalluses and sperm cells erupting in fire works. But the problem is that "Howl" is a poem that relies on the imagination - one does not need to see it literally translated.
Everyone who has read the poem will picture differently the lines, "Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night," hence negating the need for imagery.
The film is counterintuitive because the trial scene notes that poetry is not something that needs to be explained, so then, why the film?
Verdict: It is the lack of focus that fails in "Howl," and its different parts never fully come together. To this end, audiences might be rather satiated by other documentaries featuring interviews with the real Ginsberg, of which there are many.
To reach Atiyyah Khan, click here.