Review: Howl

Starring: James Franco
Directors: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Certificate: 15

Poetry in motion.

I’ve probably acknowledged on this blog before that, on occasion, I will want to watch something for fairly shallow reasons. It’s probably best that I admit that from the outset, that was the case here: I put this movie on my LoveFilm list because it was my understanding that, at some point, it involved James Franco making out with Aaron Tveit, and I wanted to see that. Look, I’m only human. The heart wants what it wants, okay?

I wasn’t really sure how much I was likely to enjoy the other, non-kissing parts of the film. One of the most important lessons that I learned as part of my English Literature degree was that, generally speaking, I have no great love for poetry. I’m not going to be some pointlessly inflammatory dickhead about it and claim that poetry has no merit or anything like that, but speaking on an entirely personal level, I’ve rarely found poetry to be worth the effort that is required to write it or read it. So as I started watching this film and realised that when it wasn’t about James Franco doing an (admittedly very accomplished) reading of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl, it was going to be spending a lot of time discussing the importance of poetry as an art form, my heart did sink a little bit.

Interestingly, what ended up saving this film for me is probably also its biggest flaw: that it’s essentially at least three films merged into one. It is, at various points: a dramatic reading of the poem complete with animation that attempts to visually capture the lyrical content of the poem, an ostensible documentary of Ginsberg talking about his life and his art, and a restaging of the legal proceedings from when the publisher of Howl was charged with obscenity. Any one of these could potentially have been a film in their own right, if given a bit more room to develop; trying to fit them all into an already comparatively short feature (the runtime is around 84 minutes) means that all three end up getting a little bit stifled, and the whole thing ends up feeling very slightly too clever for its own good. Personally, I found the court proceedings by far the most interesting part of the film, perhaps because the idea of art and censorship has always fascinated me, and I would have been more than happy to just watch a film about that. Then again, I’m really trying to learn to base my critiques on whether a film achieves what it set out to do, rather than just whether it developed in the way that I wanted to, because sometimes I forget that the two aren’t always the same thing.

There’s still a lot to enjoy in this film though, particularly the acting. Franco is great as Ginsberg, particularly in the interview segments, where he’s the absolute picture of a writer discussing his work with passion, intelligence and total understanding. Occasionally in some of the faux-archive stuff I found him a little bit over-indulgent in his commitment to playing the nerdish side of Ginsberg, but that’s such a minor quibble as to barely even qualify. (For anyone wondering about what I said in the opening paragraph, he does indeed make out with Aaron Tveit, although much to my disappointment, the bedcovers were in the way for some of it. This is an unforgivable camera-blocking error.) Jon Hamm’s presence in this film is very interesting – I hadn’t even realised he was going to be in it until the title sequence flashed up, and his role as the publisher’s defence lawyer is surprisingly low-key. In the last quarter of the film, however, when he gets to do his summing-up he has an absolutely first-rate speech (which I’m assuming was, if not verbatim then at least very closely based on, the actual speech given by the defence lawyer at the time) about whether we have the right to censor art, and Hamm delivers it magnificently. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turned out he signed up for this film purely so he could do that scene. There’s also a memorable, if brief, turn from an unrecognisable Mary-Louise Parker as a literary expert who denounces Ginsberg’s work near the start of the film. I was disappointed we never saw her again.

So while the film was a little choppy and unfocused, and while I didn’t always care for the animated segments, one thing I can say in its favour is that I came away from it really wanting to read Howl on my own terms, because parts of it as delivered by Franco were extremely evocative, and I want to know if I’d find it that effective on the page by itself. And given my aforementioned lack of interest in poetry, that’s got to be a good thing, surely?

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