This breathtakingly facile and atrociously conceived picture from directors Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman layers cliché upon cliché for the duration of its painfully extended 90 minute running time, finally serving merely to trivialise and reduce the work of cultural and literary significance it purports to celebrate. The more familiar and tedious aspects of the conventional biopic are framed by a reconstruction of a late, retrospective Ginsberg interview (here played by James Franco) alongside a dramatization of the poem’s 1957 obscenity trial, intercut throughout with a reading of the poem itself by Franco as Ginsberg, represented visually by either the first public performance of the work or a literal animated representation of the text that veers between the simplistic and obvious and the reductively moronic.
Howl (the poem) is a powerful but somewhat rambling work that was very much a product of its time and place, a jazz-inflected cry against conformity and repression and a passionately guttural evocation of (homo)sexuality. Not that you’d be able to interpret much from its presentation here. We hear the poem performed by Franco almost in its entirety, but his delivery is so entirely slavish to an approximation of Ginsberg’s intonation and mannerisms that the weight of poorly attempted mimicry becomes an irritating distraction from the text itself. Biographical re-enactments are shot in grainy black and white, underscored with either frenetic be-bop or a moody saxophone depending on the mood they’re trying to establish, and the split screen wipes and compartmentalisation of the image from the opening credit sequence onwards verge on parody, with the directors mistaking a verisimilitude of time and place with a particularly dated type of visual editing fashionable for about 15 minutes in the late 50s, an overused and lazy shorthand for establishing period.
The trial sequences, dramatized from court transcriptions, may well have been powerful indictments of censorship and an important battle for freedom of speech and artistic expression back in 1957, but now feel antiquated and, to be honest, slightly irrelevant. It’s all well and good to show ‘how far we’ve come’ in 50 years, but it’s insights and arguments are hardly earth-shattering when viewed with the benefit of retrospection, we already know the outcome of the trial and Jon Hamm’s grandstanding closing statement may well have stirred hearts and minds back then, but merely left me cold. A modern contextualisation of the poem’s literary worth and lasting power would have served the film better, and it suffers as a result of the ‘verbatim’ scripting used instead, it’s neither documentary nor dramatization and whilst certainly ambitious in it’s scope (both formally and narratively) is never as successful in its interpretation as a straight documentary could have been. It’s a narrative technique used more often in theatre and to much more convincing and extraordinary effect in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (also playing at the LFF) but here left me wishing I could spend these 90 minutes in the company of Ginsberg and his contemporaries rather than the approximations presented here.
But it’s the animated representation of the poem’ s text that proves most problematic. Visually reminiscent of the more muscular moments of Disney and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir (2008) not to mention the more sexually charged pseudo-pornographic Japanese animation that gained notoriety in the late 80s (the towering phallic imagery and ejaculatory fireworks bring to mind the graphic work of Hideki Takayama, particularly Chôjin densetsu Urotsukodôji, 1989), the slavish literal representation of the poem is either redundantly unimaginative or lacking in ideas entirely (when there’s no clear visual idea, we’re left with someone wailing into a saxophone). These sequences actually detract from Ginsberg’s work, drawing attention away from the text which has managed quite well in retaining its own visual power through the language without the aid of Eric Drooker’s soulless interpretation.
It’s an almost entirely unsuccessful piece of work, one of the least rewarding from the festival so far which adds nothing to Allen Ginsberg’s poem either through its trite attempts at biographical analysis and visual interpretation or its inability to bring any of the associated characters to life. There’s ultimately more life and feeling in Ginsberg’s own reading of Howl presented below.
Howl – 2010 – USA – 90 mins – Dir : Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Screening as part of the Film On The Square strand at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 26th & Wednesday 27th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff