Author: Constant, Paul
Date published: October 28, 2010
Journal code: STRR
Poetry in Motion
James Franco Is Great; Cartoons Are Stupid
dir. Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Oh, man. Smell that flaming cheese? It's fall, so it must be biopic season, when actors trot out their funny haircuts and overactive tear ducts for another shameless game of
Oscar grab-ass. After the parade of mediocrity we've seen over the last 10 years-does anybody, anywhere, remember Kinsey?-it's a wonder that biopics still get made. And then someone goes and puts together a movie like Howl, a film that attempts several exciting things all at once, and you remember that biopics don't have to fit some awards-friendly formula. They can actually be ambitious experiments, too.
For starters, Howl isn't anything so mundane as an Allen Ginsberg biopic, following the man from his ambitious beginnings to his later years as a puffy, animatronic reminder of former glories. Instead, it's a biography of Ginsberg's most famous poem, stretching from its first public reading to its arrival in the public consciousness as a Divisive and Important Poem. That limited scope frees the movie from making the kind of hagiographic mistakes that movies about writers can't seem to avoid. There are no scenes of feverish scribbling on notepad paper, suggesting that writing, rather than being a craft involving training and fastidious editing and rewriting, comes in quick florid bursts from some godlike, unknowable source. Instead, Howl feels more like journalism.
The movie is made up of three distinct story lines: First, Ginsberg (James Franco) gives an interview to an off-camera journalist about the creation and impact of "Howl" two years after its public debut. Next, two lawyers (Jon Hamm as the defense, David Strathairn as the prosecution) spar in an obscenity trial against "Howl." And last, as Ginsberg reads "Howl" to a bar full of listeners, the filmmakers overlay the poem with computer animation based on a book of illustrated poems cartoonist Eric Drooker made in collaboration with Ginsberg.
Franco's Ginsberg is excellent. He's nebbish, intellectual, horny, and full of himself. Even at this early date, he can see what his poem has become-that he's probably never going to create anything more celebrated, or notorious-and he has already come to terms with being the shocking young famous gay poet and primary-source historian of the Beat Generation. Franco doesn't have to touch all the biopic bases in this film, and so his performance doesn't feel too painterly or stodgy. Instead, he's intimate and loose, like he's headlining a one-man show in a 20- seat theater.
The court scenes provide an opportunity to discuss the context of the poem without being lofty. Strathairn calls a series of rumpled expert witnesses to discuss the poem's lack of literary merit. (Jeff Daniels is hilarious as an exemplar of academia's inability to accept anything as genius except in hindsight; he dismisses "Howl" as a Walt Whitman rip-off, conveniently forgetting that everyone, even Shakespeare, builds on the work of those who have come before.) Strathairn and Hamm magnificently underplay their roles. They're not hissing, strutting embodiments of society's twin engines of progressivism and conservatism; they're two lawyers doing their jobs by arguing over a poem that neither one of them, being lawyers, really understands all that well. Tethering the dialogue to the real "Howl" obscenity- trial records keeps things sane and civil; there's no pompous bleat of score over Hamm's closing arguments, and no gnashing of teeth on Strathairn's part. It's all just right.
But Howl makes a huge misstep by including the animated sequences as the last third of the film. These sequences provide a too-literal description of the words of the poem; where they could insert some much-needed literary criticism, they instead clobber the audience with ridiculous imagery that overinflates Ginsberg's words and deflates his meaning. Half of the poem, according to the animation, has to do with naked heterosexual people bathed in a superheroic green glow and flying in the air while having sex. Below them, a series of identical men in suits trudge along carrying briefcases, because we all know that poetry provides a release from the everyday boring soulless corporate job. This is the simplest, lamest description of poetry possible, a kind of Reading Rainbow- meets-Fantasia interpretation: "When you read poetry, your heart soars in the sky and it's like flying!" Baaaaaarf. It's more like this: When you read a good poem, your brain is completely engaged in a satisfying discourse with the completely engaged brain of the poet. (Animate that, motherfuckers.) The cartoons indulge in all the schmaltz that the filmmakers so cautiously avoided everywhere else.
Instead of the animation, the filmmakers should have just stuck to the footage of Franco reading the poem to a room full of captivated libertines and intellectuals. Franco's rendition of "Howl" is theatrical in the best way: He interprets "Howl" as a journey, a vivid battle between good and evil that is more accessible, and much more meaningful, than the phony Disney bullshit the animators delivered. You leave the theater wishing they'd just let the poem speak for itself; history has proven it's perfectly capable of doing just that.
Reviews of Inside Job, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and more at THESTRANGER.COM/FILM