When is a biopic not a biopic?
Directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn
Actor James Franco had an interesting 2010. To say the least. He played a perverted, pillow-loving version of himself on “30 Rock.” He joined the cast of a soap opera for a while. He stars in this fall’s Oscar-baiting feature 127 Hours—in which he plays the rock climber who amputated his own arm with a pocket knife. Within the last week, Franco was named co-host of next year’s Oscar telecast. And now he pops up in Howl, a multimedia independent biopic about Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg.
The film was written and directed by documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk). Neither documentary nor fictional account, Howl is an altogether different beast. A “dramumentary,” if you like. (Which you shouldn’t. That’s terrible.) The film concentrates mostly on the infamous 1957 obscenity trial that was sparked by the publication of Ginsberg’s epic, ire-raising poem. Rather than fabricate dialogue and characters, the filmmakers have selected actual transcripts from the trial and recruited an impressive collection of actors to enact them. This dramatization is broken up with segments in which Ginsberg (Franco) is, several years later, interviewed about the trial. (Ginsberg wasn’t actually on trial, it was his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.) Again, Ginsberg’s words are taken directly from an actual interview of the time. The third and final segment of the film’s triptych is our man Allen reciting the whole of Howl at its very first public reading in 1955.
The film’s three sections interweave to create an intriguing portrait of both the work of art and the impact it had at the time. The film is arguably not as absorbing as a traditional biopic might have been, but it gets the point across. Some parts work quite well. The cast for the trial sections is incredible. Jon Hamm and David Strathairn are the prosecutors. Bob Balaban is the judge. Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Alessandro Nivola play a series of witnesses speaking to the relative literary merit (or lack thereof) of Ginsberg’s work. It’s like an acting master class and is worth the price of admission alone. The bulk of the work here falls to Hamm (who just looks damn good in vintage suits) and Strathairn (has this guy ever given a less than stellar performance?). To their immense credit, they never make this feel like a staged reading or a dress rehearsal for an off-Broadway play (which it easily could have).
The interview sections with Ginsberg find Franco in fine form. Like Hamm and Strathairn, it never feels like he’s reading from transcripts or trying to imitate someone’s natural speech patterns. However, this one-sided monologue is more dramatically inert than the courtroom scenes and isn’t particularly insightful. It simply puts the trial scenes in perspective.
Of course, the focus of both film and trial is Ginsberg’s beatnik opus. We get to hear it recited in its entirety over the course of the film. While Franco works his way into the poem’s increasingly impassioned meter, the images are interpreted in the form of a computer-animated cartoon. A cartoon? Really? This is one of the film’s odder conceits. The images are either too literal or too abstract. None of them really look like they came out of Ginsberg’s brain. Rightly or wrongly, I figure Ginsberg’s imagination looks a lot like a David Stone Martin jazz album cover—all thick black ink doodles and vivid watercolor swatches. The animation on display in Howl looks like some Eastern European Pixar clone. It’s not terrible or even terribly distracting, but it doesn’t do a lot to enliven Ginsberg’s work—which really doesn’t need pictures of “angelheaded hipsters” to jazz it up. At best it gives you something to stare at other than James Franco standing at a podium for 20 minutes. At worst, it’s like some cheap Korn video.
Sure, there are some questionable flights of artistic fancy. (In addition to the CGI animation, there’s a steady flip-flop between black-and-white and color imagery.) At its heart, though, the film feels authentic. Howl doesn’t candy-coat its subject in nostalgia. Since the dialogue is taken word-for-word from the historical transcripts, you can’t argue with its veracity. Although the temptation might be to laud Ginsberg and his compatriots as stylish visionaries, Howl doesn’t guild the lily. Ginsberg wasn’t a beatnik icon before history branded him so. He was just some nerdy, wannabe writer in a jacket and tie, frightened by his homosexuality, adrift in the postwar generation and howling his conflicted emotions to the “starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Whatever that means.
Honestly, if you’re not a fan of Ginsberg, there’s isn’t enough meat on this bone to make you a convert. It’s some trial transcripts, a single interview and a poetry reading. If, however, you’re intrigued by the subject, Howl is an important reminder that art isn’t something that’s created in a vacuum. It has repercussions. Even for those who create it.