By Marc Glassman
Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, directors, writers and co-producers w/Gus Van Sant and others; Eric Drooker, animation designer; Ed Lachman, cinematographer; Carter Burwell, music composer
Starring: James Franco (Allen Ginsberg), Jon Hamm (Jake Ehrlich, defense attorney), David Strathairn (Ralph McIntosh, prosecuting attorney), Bob Balaban (Judge Clayton W. Horn), Jeff Daniels (Professor David Kirk), Treat Williams (Mark Schorer), Mary-Louise Parker (Gail Potter), Alessandro Nivola (Luther Nichols), Todd Rotondi (Jack Kerouac), Jon Prescott (Neal Cassady), Andrew Rogers (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), Aaron Tveit (Peter Orlovsky)
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl is a masterpiece, shockingly underrated by mainstream media. This brilliant film about the notorious obscenity trial held in San Francisco in 1957 over a book of poetry hardly has the jolts per minute of the Bourne franchise but critics should understand that some events carry an immense impact for decades, not for a few gratuitous seconds.
Apparently they don’t. Rotten Tomatoes, that arbiter of collective pop cultural taste registers Howl at a 46% favourable rating. One wonders whether the majority of my fellow critics have ever willingly read a book of poetry in their lives.
Howl is quite possibly the finest film ever made about literature and one of the very few that has truly investigated the creative process that every artist must undergo to make cultural work. Directed by documentary Academy Award winners Rob Epstein (The Life and Times of Harvey Milk) and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), the filmmakers sensitively recreates the first performance of the poem “Howl” and the reception that its explosively controversial content received when it was published by City Lights Books in San Francisco in 1957.
“Howl” created a seismic split in literary culture. It was as stimulating and upsetting in its fields as Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps” was to music and dance during its era. Just as Stravinsky exulted in Modernism’s distinctive and “barbaric” rhythms and anti-sentimentality, Ginsberg proclaimed that the Beat generation’s jazzy, ironic and anti-establishment sensibility was on the rise.
Hearing James Franco intone Ginsberg’s opening lines:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”
is as exciting as those abrupt opening chords of Stravinsky’s masterpiece of provocation.
Provocative, Ginsberg was—as had been Stravinsky—but “Howl” like “The Rite of Spring” is hardly obscene. Sadly, in 1957, when Ginsberg’s fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti published “Howl and other poems” in his City Lights Press “pocket poet” series, the political and cultural environment in the United States didn’t compare favourably to Paris in the ‘20s. “Le sacre” may have been derided—but “Howl” was actually seized and brought to trial for obscenity.
Epstein and Friedman place the trial into the centre of their docu-drama, building set pieces around the U.S. government’s attempts to censor the poem. The casting is excellent with Jon Hamm, now famous for his lead role in Mad Men, dueling legalistically with the gifted character actor David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, L.A. Confidential) while Bob Balaban (Gosford Park, A Mighty Wind) presides as the Judge. Guest witnesses testifying in favour (Jeff Daniels, Treat Williams) or against (Mary-Louise Parker) the book keep those scenes airtight and compulsively viewable.
James Franco, who is superb as Ginsberg, carries the rest of the film on his slight but wiry shoulders. The legendary first reading of Howl, in the Six Gallery in October, 1955 is recreated in all of its smoky, jazzy splendour. Even better are the poet’s reminisces, spoken into an old fashioned reel-to-reel recorder, as an unseen interviewer interrogates him about his friends Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady (the barely “fictionalized” protagonists of On the Road) and other key figures like Burroughs, Huncke and others.
Using animation for specific scenes designed by New Yorker artist and Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker adds to the film’s appropriately avant-garde mix. Inspired by an unholy combination of Blake’s illustrations, Sixties Underground Comix, and more refined graphic arts’ conceits, Drooker’s work visualizes Ginsberg’s poetry in an amusingly naïve manner.
Working with such collaborators as Coen Brothers composer Carter Burwell and acclaimed Indie cinematographer Ed Lachman, Epstein and Friedman have created an impressive film. Howl is definitely worth seeing.