A Testament to Verse in Film
If that seems boring or pretentious, don’t see it. But you should know that you will be missing out on one of the most beautiful and inspired films of the year.
Howl doesn’t have a plot. Some parts feel like a documentary — every bit of dialogue is taken from court transcripts and taped interviews with Allen Ginsberg, the author of the poem “Howl.” Fabulous animations interpreting the poem are spliced with a reenactment of Ginsberg’s groundbreaking recital and interviews with an unseen questioner.
Less important are the courtroom scenes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial for published the book Howl and other Poems. Though the trial provides the movie’s narrative structure and historical context, it isn’t a real source of drama, because we know how it turned out: Ferlinghetti was acquitted (and still operates his bookstore in San Francisco).
Ginsberg is brilliantly played by James Franco, who was probably cast because he also seems determined to live his life as a work of performance art, refusing to conform to society’s expectations. But Franco is also an exceptionally good actor and disappears into the character; we feel as if we are watching interviews with Ginsberg himself.
The same can’t be said of the movie’s high-profile cameos: Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker both play expert witnesses for the prosecution, academics called to testify on the poem’s supposed obscenity. These stars are so recognizable as themselves that even though their lines are taken directly from court records, their words, which were originally delivered sincerely (albeit misguidedly), seem ironic and condescending.
Ultimately, the movie is most like a museum exhibition devoted to an epic poem and young Ginsberg’s search for love. The best parts are the animated sequences, which bring “Howl” to life in a way that Franco, with all his talents, could never have done.