Yesterday’s X-rated becomes tomorrow’s humdrum; terrifying news to anyone that’s ever seen 2 Girls 1 Cup. Rewind 60 years and it wasn’t the antics of naked women with chocolate ice cream that was horrifying the world, but inflammatory literature.
Howl is a docu-drama about legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the conception and reaction to his famous poem Howl, a work accused of being obscene and unfit for publication when it was released in 1956, and the subsequent trial and victory for freedom of speech and anti-censorship when it was deemed to be a work of “redeeming social importance”.
But while James Franco puts in a typically strong performance as Ginsberg, he never quite gets into his stride due to the film’s unconventionally fractured structure which is split between a reconstruction of a long interview with Ginsberg at his home, a performance of Howl to a room of poets, a courtroom hearing in which Howl’s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is given a grilling and an animated interpretation of the work itself.
Easily the best strand is the section with Ginsberg in 1950s New York; Franco invests him with tenderness and uncertainty – a virginal gay poet with no direction who found acceptance (both artistically and sexually) in a group of poets (including Jack Kerouc and Ginsberg’s muse/lover Neal Cassady) who would later form the beat generation. But thanks to the film’s broken structure, it’s hard for him to build up any momentum.
The animation is unsatisfying and extremely literal in its interpretation and quickly becomes not a delirious, kaleidoscopic rendition but an unnecessary strand which simply repeats what’s already been read in a different format. Some of Howl’s most famous passages are read ad naseum with only the location changing. Searing they might be, but hearing those words multiple times in the space of a few minutes does nothing to improve their potency; it merely labours the point.
On the plus side, it is good to hear Howl read aloud – James Franco’s delivery captures the exuberance and spirit of the original work and the reconstructed interview which is a glimpse of how the man thought is irresistibly captivating.
The result is a film whose positives lie in the passion and the lucidness of Ginsberg’s own words, not its on-screen portrayal. If you’ve never read Ginsberg before, it’ll whet your appetite for his poetry but you’ll leave the cinema thinking “Allen Ginsberg was brilliant, I should read more of his work” not, “that was a great film about Ginsberg”.