“Howl” unites history, plot and poetry seamlessly into one film, part pseudo-documentary, part mock interview with author Allen Ginsberg (played by James Franco), part beatnik poetry recitation and part haunting animated feature.
Prior to viewing the film I had read (and reread) the short book “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg, on which the movie is based. Due to the poem’s complexity, density and vulgarity, I wondered how it would translate into film.
As it turns out, the answer to that is very well.
“Howl” was written and published in San Francisco in 1956. It’s not a poem you’d read in your average English class; it is a heavy text rich with truth and darkness and laced with gruesome vulgarity.
It is that same vulgarity that made “Howl” the subject of a long court trial during which poets and professors alike persuaded the court that the poem was not, in fact, obscene.
It is the court debate aspect of the book’s history that translated the poem into a film. The film is spliced into equal parts trial, interview, poetry recitation and animation, each part helping to recite the poem, give meaning behind it, and show the poem’s cultural history.
The trial scenes are realistic while still being thought-provoking, showing both sides of the argument. Literary scholars take each side of the debate (“Howl” is obscene vs. “Howl” has literary validity) and articulate their views, giving the viewer historical insight.
The courtroom scenes coupled with the mock interview scenes in which Ginsberg describes his personal history with writing and gives insight into the meaning of “Howl,” make you almost forget you’re not watching an actual documentary.
It’s easy to confuse Franco for Ginsberg himself, sitting on a floral print couch in his living room and detailing his relationships with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and his life partner Peter Orlovsky.
The remaining two parts of the film are composed of Ginsberg (Franco) reciting “Howl” in a smoky bar at a fifties-era beatnik poetry slam and dark animation to act out the poem’s content. Through this, the viewer hears most of Ginsberg’s lengthy poem without having to read it- that’s right, you can appreciate this movie without having read the book.
I liked the genuineness of the poetry slam scenes- the college-aged kids lent a lifelike, believable feel to the faraway era that is the repressive 1950s.
It took me considerably longer to warm up to the animation. At first it seems forced and ill-fitting, as though it doesn’t suit the rest of the film. The animation itself is grotesque, dark, and reminiscent of Tim Burton movies- it’s definitely not Disney. However, the animation serves the important purpose of acting out the text of the poem that is too enormous, creative, and vulgar to portray through actors. By the film’s end I found myself looking forward to the animated segments; they’ll grow on you.
Overall, I was very impressed. The film succeeded in reciting the poem and focusing on its major themes while still showing the historical aspect. If you’re the bookish type with an appreciation for history and poetry, “Howl” is for you.