On one hand, you have the straight bio-pictures: the Rays and Amelias and Malcolm Xs, which hit the key milestones in a life. And then there are the rarer expressionistic portraits, the Jackson Pollock splatters which strive more to capture the spirit of a life. David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is one, and Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is another. And undeniably, the film Howl can be put into this second category, looking at Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's (James Franco) famous poem of the same name from multiple angles, taking the measure of the man through its words and giving an impression of the age by delving into the obscenity trial it ignited. This is not the soup-to-nuts version of Ginsberg's life but instead a tone poem of what Ginsberg meant to the age he lived in — and to successive ages. Howl examines the serious, tortured side of Ginsberg, like his institutionalized mother and his own stint in psych wards, more than the puckish figure who was ousted from Cuba for calling Che Guevara "cute."
Howl opens in black and white in 1955 San Francisco with Ginsberg reading his zeitgeisty poem to a rapt audience of bohemians. It's every hipster's fantasy: to unleash a literary sensation with one shocking, transportive work. "I assumed it wouldn't be published, therefore I could write anything I wanted to," says Ginsberg, in explaining his surprise at the news of his success. The film is a composite of the literal — courtroom transcripts, interviews — and the lyrical. Its content is drawn from interviews with Ginsberg as he roams the map of his life, describing his creative process and his unrequited yearning for Jack Kerouac and a succession of handsome, unavailable men until he fixed on his soul mate Peter Orlovsky. The film establishes a dramatic juxtaposition between catharsis and release and denial and censorship. There are also courtroom scenes re-enacting the moment in 1957 when City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is charged with obscenity for distributing "Howl." His defense attorney, the dapper Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), is a suddenly self-referential icon of the age, sporting a pocket handkerchief unfurled like a peacock's tail.
The lyricism comes in Ginsberg's moments at the typewriter pecking out "Howl," when the film erupts into Eric Drooker's wild animation, a mix of Romare Bearden, Van Gogh, and Ralph Bakshi in which the words to the poem are set to a fantasia of images: bodies fornicating or flying over the New York skyline, a forest of penises, a constantly morphing farrago of visual excess.
To its great merit, what is conveyed in Howl is the essence of Ginsberg's cultural meaning: the liberation of his language and the unburdening of his soul, including — very publicly and shockingly for 1955 — the torments and ecstasies of a gay man. In Ginsberg's interviews, he reveals a tragic soul struggling with heartbreak and a poignant quest for love. As directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl lets Ginsberg's poem, and those interview segments where he makes tea and bares his soul to an unseen journalist, tell the story of Ginsberg's experience.
For contemporary viewers, it's hard, almost humorous, to imagine a nation incensed over a poem; literature seems incapable of inflaming the public imagination to the extent it does here. Some of Howl's most fascinating moments feature a parade of cameos, like Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola, and Mary-Louise Parker (amusing as priggish English professor Gail Potter) playing the various witnesses who testified against or for "Howl" during the trial. The back and forth repartee and close readings of the text make the court proceedings often sound, hilariously, more like a grad school crit. The varying interpretations of literary critics and English professors prove the point that art, and meaning, are in the eye of the beholder.
An excavation of a key piece of American literature, Howl probably isn't for everyone. The animated segments will either delight or annoy, and the entire film can at times have a lesson-like feel with its illustrative, stagey courtroom, coffee house, and interview scenes. But for students of Ginsberg, American history, and the Beats, Howl is probably essential viewing.