Directed by: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Cast: James Franco, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins
Release Date: September 24, 2010 (limited)
PLOT: A drama centered on the obscenity trial Allen Ginsberg (Franco) faced after the publication of his poem, Howl.
WHO’S IT FOR? Champions of free speech, lovers of the Beat Generation, and Ginsberg fans alike will adore this film. For those unfamiliar with Ginsberg and Beat, this film will likely be less powerful, but Franco’s performance as Ginsberg is solid enough to enthrall even the most disinterested.
EXPECTATIONS: While I can’t say that Ginsberg’s obscenity trial was ever at the top of my buzz-list, I have enjoyed watching James Franco in just about everything he’s done. The strong supporting cast in Jon Hamm and Jeff Daniels further enhances the film’s draw — I was excited to see this film based solely on the caliber of the actors involved.
James Franco as Allen Ginsberg: Charismatic as always, and confident living under the skin of a celluloid Ginsberg, Franco was perfectly cast here, and his performance was the centerpiece of the film. Franco’s delivery of lines, timing, and mannerisms were all spot on, and as necessary to coincide with the film’s general message, Franco successfully portrayed Ginsberg as a sympathetic figure. Where some of Ginsberg’s written word is unflinchingly harsh (and offensive to some), the viewer is asked to take an intimate look into the writer’s softer side; his fearful, longing, human side. Franco facilitates this all very well, and it adds greatly to the poignancy of the film’s general message.
Jon Hamm as Jake Ehrlich: A good, albeit brief, performance. Hamm plays the lead defense attorney in the obscenity trial, and he plays him well. Ultimately though, this was more of a glorified cameo, as his screen-time and dialogue were both quite limited.
Jeff Daniels as Professor David Kirk: I’ll echo the same sentiment here, as Daniels’ performance was excellent, but his role was rather limited. He plays the role of a literary “expert,” brought into the court case to deem whether Howl had any literary merit. Daniels’ character was one of many who saw Howl as nothing more than trash. It was enjoyable entertainment, watching his character butt heads with Hamm’s. Both actors brought subtle nuance to their roles, and added to the overall quality of the film.
TALKING: Much of the film’s dialogue was taken directly from courtroom transcripts and taped interviews, and it’s usually compelling and well delivered. We, of course, also get to hear plenty of Ginsberg’s Howl read aloud. All in all, the quality and organization of the script is good.
SIGHTS: I would give Howl much higher marks for it’s visual presentation if it’s creators had hired a different artist (or group of artists) to helm the many animated segments — or especially if they had abstained from the animations altogether. I found the animations to be overly cheesy in their expression and psychologically invasive in their implementation. The general cinematography of the film was good, but as the film routinely bounced back into the animated segments, I consistently found myself in a void somewhere between boredom and nausea.
SOUNDS: I thought the soundtrack was OK, not great, not horrible. The film’s use of sound was fairly basic, which is all this type of film really calls for, I suppose. The music was a little heavy handed during some of the “free speech must shine on” moments, but that’s to be expected.
BEST SCENE: This might sound like a slag off, but it’s not meant as such: I think the opening credits were the “best scene.” They stoked my interest; I felt excited about what I was about to see, and that’s what a good opening credit sequence can do. Looking back, I’m glad the opening credits didn’t employ the same techniques as the animated segments, as that would have lost me right away.
ENDING: The film’s ending is solid. It doesn’t leave anything important unresolved (universal existential anxiety and the morass of the human state notwithstanding).
QUESTIONS: If he was still alive, I wonder what Allen Ginsberg would think of this film.
REWATCHABILITY: Not really, unless you worship at the alter of Ginsberg.
I gathered this film had two major goals: one, to introduce Allen Ginsberg as a sympathetic character and two, to notch another in the bedpost of Hollywood’s stand against censorship. It succeeded in both.
Casting James Franco and Jon Hamm as the film’s “favorable fellows” was an ace move, as it’s nearly impossible to ignore their charisma. Franco fostered sympathy expertly, and Hamm gave an air of Everest-level self-assuredness. On the flip side, most of the villains (the proponents of censorship) in this film were played by much less charming individuals. This may be the oldest trick in the book, but it was especially effective here, as by default, people tend cheer for the handsomest. However, this is not to say that the filmmakers failed to back their heroes with more substantial credibility than just their looks.
Based on the facts of his life alone, Allen Ginsberg comes off as an extremely sympathetic character. Through his words, in candid interview and in his writings, we learn of his feelings of immense alienation, his struggles with homosexuality, his having to allow for his institutionalized mother’s lobotomy — all very heavy stuff. The framework of his life, loaded with such strife, presented in juxtaposition to the obscenity trial, certainly allows for all of the courtroom proceedings to seem quite trivial — when you’re wrapped up in the hell that is Ginsberg’s life, how can you care about how one would define “obscenity” and “literary merit?”
I certainly learned a lot about Ginsberg’s life through watching Howl, and by the end of the film, I found myself in his corner, rooting for him to win the match.
One last thing: I’ve made mention of it already, but I would have given this film a much greater overall score if the animation sequences weren’t so ghastly. The more I think about it, the more I think they shouldn’t have been included at all. I feel like the filmmakers missed the ball entirely with this approach. The idea behind poetry is THE WORDS, and then, of course, the successive images or feelings that the words conjure up within each individual perceiver. We don’t need a third party’s visual interpretation of Ginsberg’s words. In the end, the whole enterprise of trying to animate Ginberg’s written word really cheapened Howl for me.
Aside from the animations though, I think Howl plays very well, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in Ginsberg or the Beat Generation.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10