I, like many others, had that period back in college when I really got into the “beat generation” and other counter-culture icons. It has become a time-honored rite of passage for young people, and more because I felt like I had to then because I wanted to, I devoured the works of guys like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and J.D. Salinger (not technically a beat author, but I always find myself lumping him in because he represents the same sort of angst and self-discovery that permeates the others’ work).

And although I read these mostly out of a dutiful obligation to my age and place in the world, I still ended up really enjoying books like On the Road, Junkie and Catcher in the Rye, and have even revisited them since. But the one towering achievement of the beat world that I could never get into (and the only one I ever actually read FOR school, oddly enough) was Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl. I knew I should have liked it more than I did, but what can I say – at the end of the day, with a few rare exceptions, I am just not a poetry guy, and never found myself appreciating Howl in the way that would be required to say I actually liked it.

I DID, however, respect Ginsberg, and what Howl stood for, and what it meant for both the literary world and just the real world at the time of its release. In studying the man, I was fascinated by the story of how something like a poem could spark an obscenity trial that made national headlines, and held in its balance the potential fate of all future authors and what they could safely publish. I found the story of Howl far more compelling than Howl itself.

So it is no surprise, then, that I liked some parts of the Howl movie, and found myself bored by others. A movie adaptation of Howl is a strange idea, obviously, and so this is actually more a movie about Ginsberg himself, focusing primarily on the events that inspired the poem, his famous first reading of it at the Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco, and the aforementioned obscenity trial. But the filmmakers obviously felt the poem itself was too important not to adapt in some form or another, so the movie also features sequences of the poem set to animated interpretations of its imagery. The animation is quite good, and some of the images are quite striking, but these were still the parts of the movie that I was least interested, as it was the biographical elements of Ginsberg’s life that really intrigued me (and I personally find the Six Gallery Reading scenes a lot more effective than the animated sequences, anyway, as James Franco here reads the poem with such life and passion that it actually renders the work much more captivating and enjoyable than any animated adaptation can accomplish).

Unfortunately, though, I’m not sure I can really get behind HOW the movie presents the biographical scenes, either. I don’t mind that the movie tells the story in non-linear fashion, but what bugged me is that the film is presented as a fake-documentary, with Franco as Ginsberg being interviewed about Howl and the events that led to its creation. While he speaks about it, we are shown black-and-white footage of these events, but they have no dialogue of their own, rather they are just accompanied by Franco’s voice-over narration. So that means while Kerouac and Neal Cassady ARE characters in the film, we never get to hear them speak, or get a true feel of their interactions with Ginsberg. I would gladly watch an actual documentary about these figures, but here, if you’ve gone to the trouble of hiring actual actors to play these parts, I don’t know – I just would have preferred a more standard sort of biopic, I guess, especially since Franco’s work as Ginsberg is so strong. I would like to see it used more than just sitting in a chair and talking for the majority of the movie.

The best scenes besides the Six Gallery Reading are during the obscenity trial (at which Ginsberg himself wasn’t actually present), with Jon Hamm playing the defender trying to prove Howl’s literary worth, and David Straitharn as the stuffy prosecutor trying to get it banned for its course language and smutty subject matter. The writer in me found it easy to get involved in these sequences, given what was at stake.

All in all, you probably already know whether Howl is a movie for you before even seeing it. Those who are big fans of Ginsberg and his work will no doubt love the film. Those who admire him more for what he stood for but are not quite as entranced by the work itself (like me) will find scenes they enjoy, but will not be completely blown away by the movie. And those who couldn’t care less about Ginsberg and poetry, and find the whole beat movement pretentious and unimportant, will see nothing here to convince them otherwise. I think a really powerful, well-made movie about Ginsberg might have actually been able to win over all three of those camps. But this film just sort of is what it is, and seems primarily made only for devotees of the man and his work.

Oh, and Franco’s beard looks like it’s drawn on with a sharpie.

 

 

This review was originally posted on May 28th, 2011 at Trevor Likes Movies.

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