Watching Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s (both of whom co-directed the excellent documentary The Celluloid Closet) Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl (2010), I was reminded of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Harvey Pekar drama-documentary American Splendor (2003). Both films provide portrayals of artists who took it upon themselves to represent the previously ignored, be it in Ginsberg’s attention to junkies and drifters or Pekar’s obsession with the mundane of lower-class America. Moreover, both films side-step the form of the biopic made famous by “A&E Biography,” typically cycling through origin, success, and downfall. For Epstein and Friedman, as had been the case for Springer Berman and Pulcini previously, there seems to be a quality in their subject’s work that motivates this directorial decision.
The subject of the film isn’t just Ginsberg himself; the subject is his also poem “Howl” (1955), the publication of which brought a noteworthy obscenity trial in 1957. Yet, how does one make an adaptation of a poem while also trying to satisfy those viewers interested in Ginsberg’s life, inspirations, and how they may have affected his writing while also keeping tabs on the obscenity trial? Epstein and Friedman’s challenge is to try to tease out the connections inherent in the multiple stories they are juggling. We are given scenes of Ginsberg (James Franco) speaking to an interview during the obscenity trial, discussing his technique, his history with the other Beat writers (most notably, Jack Kerouac), and his views on his homosexuality. Epstein and Friedman intercut this sequence, set in 1957, with Ginsberg performing his first reading of “Howl” publically in 1955. The 1955 spoken word sequence gives way to an animated interpretation of the poem, taken from Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker’s art. The animated sequences are the roughest part of the film, due both in part to the schizophrenia of the styles drawn upon (CGI, cell animation) and to the fact that it struggles with its visual interpretation of the poem, sometimes favoring on-the-nose for odd, visual choices.
The final piece of narrative being weaved in and out is that of the 1957 court case. The case brought the poem’s domestic publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Bookstore, under suit for the distribution of obscene materials. Prosecuted by Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) against defense attorney Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), the trail brought forth experts in literature (played by a range of actors from Alessandro Nivola, Mary Louise-Parker, Treat Williams, and Jeff Daniels, to the debate the relevance of the poem and to render their opinions as to if it was unnecessarily obscene in its use of language. As you’re no doubt already aware if you have spent any time in a bookstore lately, “Howl” is still available. Judge Clayton W. Horn (Bob Balaban) ruled in favor of Ehrlich and Ferlinghetti. We know from the beginning how this is going to turn out and while the intellectual debates taking place here are provoking, it is a dry patch of cinema, occasionally brought to live by the noteworthy ensemble assembled.
Out of the three narratives the filmmakers weave, the most successful is that featuring Franco as Ginsberg. Franco, since his days as a teen heartthrob in Spider-Man (2002), has come a long way as both an actor and an artist. 2008 was a noteworthy year in his career arc, as he gave us both a loving stoner in David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express and, in the small but nonetheless effective role of Scott Smith in Milk, a supportive homosexual, wounded by Harvey Milk’s inattentiveness. Over the past couple years, Franco has begun experimenting with both art and his performances (his appearances on General Hospital will attest to that) and has even begun to explore a writing career. The point is that both Franco’s outgoingness and his eclectic career choices beyond the backlot bring to his portrayal of Ginsberg a certain naturalism; he already appears to feel a kinship with the poet. He doesn’t overplay Ginsberg, as is often the danger in most biopics and one reason I tend to despise the genre; he simply brings him into existence.
In the end, I would recommend Howl, despite the failures of its ambitions, to anyone interested in the Beat generation or Ginsberg himself. Epstein and Friedman aren’t as successful as the team behind American Splendor when it comes to hybridizing the story and form of the biopic, but at least attempts to reach beyond the same, Oscar baiting, routine. At times, the film howls, at others, it yawns but you could do a whole lot worse when it comes to picking a film at the theater or on Video On Demand (which the film is, right now).
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.