Howl is an excellent trial drama that takes on a complicated subject and produces a coherent and stimulating film.
Taking the trial surrounding the poem 'Howl' as the focus for a film is an ingenious decision as the complexities of Allen Ginsberg’s long life would certainly have to be diluted to fit 90-odd minutes.
Starting from the poem also allows the film to digress into those sections of Ginsberg’s past, without obligation, as it sees fit. In that way it serves as a neatly placed chapter in a biography, scattered with touching footnotes.
Another narrative thread, set in ultra conservative 1950s America, centres around the obscenity trial that embroiled Ginsberg’s eponymous poem, where it was accused of being obscene and the question was raised as to whether it ought to be banned or heavily censored. The majority of the courtroom action is spent ruminating about whether the 'Howl' should be classed as literature or is merely thinly disguised verbal pornography.
Considering the literary weight that anchors much of the courtroom debate, Howl zips along with fascinating back-and-forths brilliantly delivered by the likes of Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels and Alessandro Nivola. Archive footage of Ginsberg and montages of the period are intercut with James Franco’s convincing portrayal of the young Ginsberg, as he hangs off the shoulder of Neal Cassady and indulges in cigarette fuelled conversation – dialogue of which was taken from tapes of Ginsberg being interviewed during that period.
There's little of the excitement of films like Milk or A Few Good Men, with their pomp and high-drama – such flamboyance would patronise the subject of the film though. Rather, the compelling success, and possible short-comings, of 'Howl' are linked to Ginsberg’s character, for at the root of the trial is Ginsberg’s personal struggles that prompt him to write Howl.
The sense of freedom in Ginsberg’s work is intrinsically linked to a sense of unease that borders on fear. Due to his sexuality and nature, the young Ginsberg struggles with a view of himself that is somehow wrong or bad. In rejecting the social values that impose this image on him, there’s an equal struggle to define himself and he goes off on some quite intense journeys of discovery. This ungrounded mindset makes for some extremely disorienting passages.
As an insight into Ginsberg, Howl only really offers the ideology and romance of the revolutionary mind. There’s nothing of the filth and trauma – eulogies to masturbating to Rimbaud – that help get in his mind, probably because it would make him a harder character to root for.
A significant casting decision that epitomises this point is that of Hamm, who plays the defence lawyer representing Ginsberg’s publisher. As a presence and voice he brings a great sense of security to the film; like the dulcet tones of comforting parent.
This is brilliant counter balance to Ginsberg’s caffeinated neurosis, which jitter away, kept ordered and sequential by a progression of cigarettes. But to represent the poem, or indeed Ginsberg, this sense of security is noticeably obscuring.
This may seem off point, but what makes Howl jut out as not just another trial drama is that its focus is Ginsberg and the questions that plagued him – the curious and intricate nature of the subject means it can dispel with the usual courtroom shouting and jubilation. Yet the film rarely conveys this psychological unease essential to engaging with Ginsberg – and so a large part of the poetry.
Animation provides the more conflicting moments of the film, wonderfully used as a means to visualise the poem as it is being read. While the poem Howl is graphic and rhythmic enough that a visual representation is almost off-putting, the animation has a surreal fluidity that compliments the poem nicely.
Howl is an excellent trial drama that takes on a complicated subject and produces a coherent and stimulating film. Although you’re clearly supposed to rooting for Ginsberg’s corner, it makes the effort to help you sympathise with the opposition and so leave hanging the subtle tension created as both sides see the other as mad.
Ginsberg and a decent cast.
Engrossing and fascinating.
A shade of Ginsberg, but a refreshing and solid film.