“I have seen 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 …”
And thus, at a reading at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on Oct. 7, 1955, began the skyrocket ascension of an unpublished 29-year-old poet, a New Yorker, an openly gay Jewish man then living in San Francisco. Allen Ginsberg unleashed his word-shattering “Howl” on the world and influenced subsequent generations of poets for better and worse.
And, with his liberal use of sexual and drug imagery, he created a major test case; Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Press, who first published “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956, was brought to trial on obscenity charges in San Francisco the following year.
With a general lack of intellectual curiosity in this cowtown of a half-million, plus one small organization (Fresno Filmworks) that only has the wherewithal to show one film for two screenings one night a month, it’s rare that we get any first-run art-house fare here. But not only did we get that, we were fortunate to see “Howl” a week ahead of its widespread release, thanks to a screening Friday (Sept. 17) at Reel Pride, the city’s 21st annual LGBT film festival.
What the rest of you will get to see in the coming weeks is a fantastic, perhaps career-defining performance by James Franco, who’s not only excelling in showing his versatility, but reveling in it. Also, we see some excellent editing and pacing. But at the same time, we also get a pedestrian story and some annoying and wrongheaded animation.
Directors/producers/writers Rob Epstein (a two-time Oscar-winner for Best Documentary for “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt”) and Jeffrey Friedman based the film’s dialogue on archival interviews with Ginsberg (who died in 1997), the trial transcripts and the poem itself.
As such, the film is five separate storylines woven and jumpcut together: the poetry reading at the Six Gallery; the 1957 trial; Franco’s Ginsberg giving a taped interview in his apartment at the time of the trial; flashbacks to a younger Ginsberg, including his friendship with Columbia classmate Jack Kerouac and his briefly consummated infatuation with Neal Cassady; and the poem itself as conveyed through animation.
The directors distinguish the present from the past by showing the trial and interview scenes in color and the flashbacks in black-and-white. The use of black-and-white as an attitude-adjuster, which worked so well for George Clooney in “Good night, and good luck.,” works just as well for Epstein and Friedman.
Clooney’s 2005 film about Ed Murrow — also set in the mid-’50s, filmed in color but processed entirely in black-and-white — is introduced to us with a period-setting opener of matte red lipstick, cigarette smoke and elegantly dressed New Yorkers socializing amicably, sipping cocktails and wine at a posh nightclub. “Howl” gives us something parallel to set time and place; it opens at the gallery, Ginsberg on stage, the cramped room filled with intently gazing hipsters, a scene of many pairs of horn-rimmed glasses, with much smoke (both tobacco and cannabis) and the passing of jugs of wine. The B/W treatment works well overall, but most effectively in the reading scenes.
Epstein and Friedman pace the film very well, successfully mixing up their pitches and storylines in the most effective way possible. We see the electricity build in the gallery as Ginsberg, fueled by equal parts passion and wine, builds to his triumphant crescendo; the rewinds to what led him to this particular moment; this stirring main event juxtaposed with the quiet solitude of the poet later reflecting on his inner self on his couch, the tape recorder a surrogate therapist; and the equally quiet moments of a genteel courtroom where defendant Ferlinghetti sits and hears expert witnesses weigh in on whether the book he’s gone out on a limb for has artistic merit or is just plain filthy.
The fine cutting-room job also serves to downplay the flaws.
Nearly every supporting actor in this name cast comes off as two-dimensional at best (i.e. Todd Rotondi’s Kerouac and Jon Prescott’s Cassady), window dressing at worst, especially in the trial scenes. David Strathairn, one of my favorites, is a good choice for the role of prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, thanks to his usual authoritarian tone of gravity; on the whole, though, he simply comes off as a conservative, New England Yankee-sounding counterpart to Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy. Conversely, the 39-year-old Jon Hamm, obviously cast for his name and his hunk status, is far too young and dispassionate to effectively portray the defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich, who actually was 56 or 57 at the time of the trial. The presiding judge (Bob Balaban) and expert witnesses (including Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels) do their jobs effectively enough. But Andrew Rogers’ Ferlinghetti just sits there and looks like Ferlinghetti and says nothing the whole time.
And the poem animation is just flat-out problematic. The filmmakers had a real challenge here: How do we best interpret and convey the spirit, the feeling, behind such a momentous and freewheeling piece of literature? Whatever the answer is, and I don’t pretend to know, this sure isn’t it. Of course, a fundamental problem is that the animation is merely one interpretation of a work that, by nature, is interpreted in so many ways, but for the sake of the film, simply can’t be left to everyone’s mind’s eye. The animation comes off as straight-shot as a college project at times, a short from one of those animation festival reels, or perhaps a scene from “Heavy Metal” as done with computer-generated imagery. And that’s another thing: The CGI and its pacing comes off as awkward and stilted, a lead counterweight to the free spirit of the poem.
But all the flaws come off as mere annoyances, occasional branches in the roadway, in light of Franco’s performance.
I’m generally leery of films based on real-life events, since unless I know the whole story, I sit and wonder just how much license the filmmakers take with the facts (especially in a case such as this, where I’m not as well-read on the actual story). But as best as I’ve seen and heard of Ginsberg in interviews and recordings, Franco nails him. He gets the energetic hand gestures and increasing intensity at the reading; he gets the slight Jewish inflections of Ginsberg’s voice; he gets the placidity, the seeming casual weariness, perched just above his cauldron of inner turmoil.
He immerses himself so head-first into the character that you don’t think of Franco himself at any time at all as you watch him; you think Ginsberg — a much more handsome version, mind you, but Ginsberg nonetheless. Franco’s recent career, starting with his portrayal of Harvey Milk’s lover Scott Brown in “Milk” (which, FYI, was heavily inspired by Epstein’s Milk documentary and directed by “Howl’s” executive producer, Gus Van Sant), seems to be one of a man with something to prove to both himself and the public. Whatever his motivation, he certainly has shown himself to be an actor of great range and versatility, and his Ginsberg is a role he can long look back on proudly.
In the end, “Howl” is one of those films where, in the moment, you might say “It was a good film,” then, as the moment wears off, pick it apart gradually and say “Eh, I don’t like what they did here.” But Franco’s performance as Ginsberg will remain intact and indelible, one definitely worth seeing and appreciating.