A Howling Success – Resuscitating America’s greatest 20th Century poem in film

What a spectacular creation is Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s docu-drama “Howl,” and what a gorgeous mess. That’s quite befitting for the classic Whitman-esque sprawl of a poem, delivered first to a group of eager beatniks in a smoky coffeehouse one night in 1955. This electric evening is brought to life by an amazing performance by James Franco, who portrays author Allen Ginsberg.

Franco has played interesting characters in “Milk,” “Spider-Man 3” and “Pineapple Express,” but his Ginsberg is something else entirely, a creation from the inside out. He portrays the poet at several stages of his artistic genesis, most notably in conversation with an unseen interviewer during the obscenity trial at which the poem “Howl” and City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti were the center.

When Franco speaks, it’s Ginsberg, and not in a parody or impression. He nails the author’s cadences, which generations of poets both good and bad have imitated, including the mantra-like delivery that has never known (and never will know) the full stop. But we also see an artist thinking, putting into words a philosophy that he is still figuring out, and that’s why these scenes work so well.

The filmmakers, who have made documentaries such as “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” come to dust off “Howl” and put it in its historical setting. They show biographical glimpses of the events that made it into the poem, including Ginsberg’s relationship with both Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, both of whom helped a very shy kid with sexual identity issues come out and grow as an artist and a man. They also included scenes from the obscenity trial, with Bob Balaban playing the judge, David Strathairn the prosecuting attorney and Jeff Daniels as a literary professor/witness. Taken from actual transcripts, the case seems baffling to modern eyes, but it did happen as we hear it: debates on the meaning of the word “blow” and witnesses being asked to explain the poem’s lines in plain English.

But the backbone of the film, and one which viewers will no doubt debate, is the poem itself, presented in both the coffee shop reading and in a phantasmagoric animated visualization by Eric Drooker, who once collaborated on an illustrated book of poems with Ginsberg and who many will know from his graphic novels and New Yorker covers.

The sequences provide some astounding visuals, including a devil dog-turned-skyscraper/factory to represent Moloch (referencing Fritz Lang along the way), swirling naked spirits and crazed psychedelics. Sometimes these illustrations are too literal for a poem that defies literalness, but they do provide something that rarely comes up in American films these days: a total head trip. For a new generation of viewers who haven’t had their own “Fantasia,” “Howl” will please many and send some to the poem for the first time. And, as “Howl” — the film and the poem — attests, is still relevant today.

‘HOWL’
****
Starring: James Franco and David Strathairn
No rating, but contains language and sexual situations
Length: 84 minutes

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