Sundance Film Fest: Howl Review

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Sundance Film Fest Dramatic competition 2010–A stylistically ambitious and formally open investigation into the cultural and social impact of Allen Ginsberg's landmark poem, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Howl" functions as both road map and time travel.

In drawing on multiple forms and different storytelling devices, the filmmakers pose central and essential questions about American cultural freedom and intellectual liberation during a convulsive time when those concepts were very much a searing debate.

The movie weaves together documentary autobiography, dramatic recreation and startling associative, nonlinear animation. It makes for an alternately fascinating and troubling result; the film is undeniably engaging and interesting for the period it animates, the force of personality of Ginsberg and other Beat figures of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Peter Orlovsky.

But it also never quite satisfactorily answers the question of whether all of this makes it cinema. It's a hybrid of forms and styles, closer to the essay film. The movie's cinematographer is the superb Edward Lachman. Not coincidentally, he also photographed Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There." Just as Haynes' film draws on a vibrant cultural history, civil rights, folk music, Sixties Godard films, in meditating on the contradictory and dovetailing identities of Bob Dylan, "Howl" also tries to marry personality to history. Epstein and Friedman are clearly talented, but they don't have quite the brio and imaginative fury of Haynes to quite pull it off.

Even so, "Howl" is never less than engrossing. The film intercuts four essential movements: Ginsberg (James Franco) making his first public reading of the poem at San Francisco in 1955, shot in smoky, grainy black and white; Ginsberg being interviewed in 1957 by an unseen journalist, photographed in highly saturated color with some interpolated black and white footage; the notorious 1957court case in San Francisco where poet, City Lights publisher and Beat patron Lawrence Ferlinghetti was accused of violating local obscenity laws, shot in a more muted color palette; color and ink black sexually charged animation sequences that that attempts to replicate the rhapsodic word play and imagery Ginsberg's poem evoked.

The poem's seminal opening: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," was the launching point that wove togtether an aggressive and confrontational grafting of raw language, explicit sexuality and metaphoric onslaught.

The courtroom sequences are the closest the movie comes to traditional narrative realism. The bouncy material moves between tragedy to high farce. The filmmakers drew from the court transcripts, illustrating with a sure touch but not a great deal of intensity or dramatic flair how a square, out of his depth prosecutor (David Straithairn) dueled with a formidable defense attorney (Jon Hamm) as different literary scholars argue over the poem's literary merits.

The direct address interview is the most elastic of the movie's four movements, because the form allows greater freedom. It provides insights into Ginsberg's process and attitudes, mixing his background (the son of a Russian-Jewish poet and emotionally fragile mother) with his intellectual development, spurred by his time at Columbia University. (The movie makes short mention of Louis Ginsberg, Allen's father, a considerable poet in his own right.)

In these pieces, his memories, his interaction with Kerouac, Cassady, are illustrated in black and white, and the dense and fluid interplay shift in time and space properly give a sense of the social tumult but also the ideological and philosophical grounding of the Beats, the extreme rejection of social norms that captured the alienation and drift of the post-war American life. (Even so, the actors used for Kerouac and Cassady seem off, capturing neither their vitality nor their magnetism and wounded narcissism.)

The animation, conceived and executed by the Monk Studios, has a gravity and shapeliness that helps unravel the mysteries and associative power. These pieces are the loosest of social constraint, given a freedom and power that is quite intoxicating.

Franco is a compelling presence; even if he doesn't entirely resemble Ginsberg, he captures with a sharp clarity the artist's mixture of inquiry, toughness, insecurity and a sense of the never ending quest.

Does it all add up?  During the courtroom testimony, the University of California literary professor Mark Schorer (Treat Williams), asked to decipher one of the poem's cryptic lines, says: "You can't translate poetry into prose. That's what makes it poetry."

That's a problem with much of the cinematic works on the Beats. The problems of adaptation have undercut a great deal of these films. It is why the only truly great film made from a Beat source is David Cronenberg's adaptation of William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," because he refused to try to make an unfilmable text but drew on excepts from the book and parts of the writer's life to construct a dazzling counter work.

"Howl" is not at that level. It's not exactly poetry, either, but as an appropriation of style and form, it has a conviction and intensity of purpose that finally wins out.