In 1955 Allen Ginsberg read his then unpublished poem Howl to an audience including Jack Kerouac at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was, in retrospect, a symbolic moment of social and artistic upheaval: for the first time, the dislocation and unease that young post-World War II Americans were feeling was reflected back to them, using a new language they identified with. Howl was immediate, sensuous, and ‘crude’. It was this uninhibited language that landed the poem’s eventual publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on trial for ‘publishing obscene material’ in 1957.
These events – the first public reading of Howl and, later, the obscenity trial – form the basis for directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s latest collaboration, Howl, starring James Franco as a young Ginsberg. Best known for their work in documentaries, especially the cult film The Celluloid Closet (1995), Howl is a departure for Epstein and Friedman. Here, as Friedman has said, ‘we had to liberate our thinking and expand our definition of what’s a documentary? What’s reality? What’s true storytelling?’ The end result is a genre-bending, non-linear and stylistically varied biopic, merging surrealism-inspired animation with archival footage and fictional recreations to examine only a small segment of Ginsberg’s early career – the birth of the poem itself and its socio-cultural importance in the obscenity trial.
The film – like the poem – is organised in four sections, all continually overlapping and stylistically unique. First: Ginsberg reading his poem at the Six Gallery, shot in black and white; second: the obscenity trial, in colour; third: an imagined interview with Ginsberg at his home, shot as a disjointed monologue; and fourth: the poem itself, narrated by Franco and set to the hallucinogenic animations of Eric Drooker.
This diversity in narrative and stylistic elements work together to deny the viewer a comfortable realist depiction of Ginsberg and the poem: Ray or Bright Star this is not. Indeed, the film deliberately eschews the conventions that usually allow us to ‘get under the skin’ of the artist: here, Ginsberg functions more as a symbol of and mouthpiece for creative and cultural liberation rather than anything approximating a ‘real’ person.
This is despite the fact that Franco’s performance is undeniably strong, nuanced and considered. Like Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, which is currently screening Australia-wide, Howl is a film that showcases his versatility as an actor. He spends much of Howl speaking almost directly to the viewer, delivering a stream-of-consciousness monologue to an invisible interviewer and recreating Ginsberg’s infamous first reading at Six Gallery. But, although he renders Ginsberg’s cadence of speech perfectly, these lengthy points in the film – that do add to the overall picture of the poet-philosopher – are not the most memorable: Ginsberg so frequently speaks in a one-way exchange that the viewer becomes detached.
The few glimpses we are given of the man behind the symbol occur in the intimate exchanges between Ginsberg and his lovers, which are also Franco’s strongest moments in the film. Indeed, the first time Ginsberg ‘is shown love’, as he says, when Neal Cassady (played by Jon Prescott) puts his arms around him in bed, is heart-wrenchingly tender and beautiful. But, in truth, instances like this one in the film are far and few between.
Nonetheless, the fact that Ginsberg never comes to life for very long in Howl – despite Franco’s assured performance – does not diminish the film’s overall intention: real-life people and events from the past are only important in so far as they bring to light certain themes. In this vein, Howl uses the actual transcripts from the original obscenity trial to powerfully highlight the fallibility of criteria used to justify censorship. Whether one is able to ‘objectively determine the value’ of a work art – the governing principle of censorship – is shown as inherently flawed; we all approach a piece of art with our own inescapable subjectivity, which colours our judgment. Epstein and Friedman link this broader theme of ideological censorship to the realm of the personal, exploring the fundamental difficulties associated with having to censor one’s own homosexuality – a theme they also dealt with in The Celluloid Closet.
Ultimately, Howl is not a biopic that tries to immerse viewers in the intimate world of its real-life protagonists, but rather in the issues that surround them. And, although the film does not come close to achieving the immediacy of Ginsberg’s poem, it does refuse to entomb the poem in one (realist) style. Instead, its stylistic verve attempts to provide a multifaceted view of Ginsberg and Howl as dynamic cultural symbols. This refusal on the part of the filmmakers to conform to the conventions of genre and tradition seems like something Ginsberg would have applauded.
Kate Harper studied cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.