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Howl

Ginsberg Makes Noise

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

To say Howl is a biopic is misleading. To say it's about the landmark obscenity trial surrounding the poem's publication is also not really accurate. It is about the author and leader of the beat movement, Alan Ginsberg (played by James Franco), and the trial surrounding his most famous poem's publication, but really it's about the poem itself. The film tells a story, but it mostly evokes the emotions that are aroused in the poem.

It feels as if the film would be happy just to animate the images evoked in the poem, as it does wildly throughout, but it's interspersed with court-room drama and off-the-cuff discussions with Franco as the poet. Thus, it never truly feels like a whole. It feels like pieces stuck together, as if the filmmakers couldn't decide whether they wanted to focus on the poem, on the trial, or on Ginsberg himself. Yet, despite the disjointedness of the film, there are a lot of things it does right.

For one, Franco is outstanding as Ginsberg. He's free, comfortable, and loses himself in the role. He is Ginsberg. His reenactment of the poem’s unveiling is impassioned, and just watching it feels as if you're witnessing an historical event. We get glimpses of Ginsberg’s life but mostly we get Ginsberg telling us in his own words.

Sure, the first rule of film is to show, not tell, but we see the true Ginsberg as Franco channels him and reflects on his own life. In his eyes, there is no Beat Movement. It was just a bunch of writers looking to get published. Many wouldn't agree with Ginsberg's own statements about "his" movement. But that's Ginsberg. Many of the glimpses we do get involve the people in his life like Jack Kerouac. We see how they influenced who Ginsberg became and how his writing voice evolved.

It's the courtroom scenes that really drag the film down. Enlightening and interesting on their own, they ultimately take you out of the film. We do hear opinions of those that aren't Ginsberg, himself, or those of his peers. We hear the arguments for and against its perceived obscenity, but it just doesn't feel like part of the film we've already been watching.

Of course, it's in the court room that we get the great talent from the likes of Jon Hamm as the defender (basically playing Don Draper without the personality), David Straithairn as the eager prosecutor and even Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels as witnesses to its literary importance. And the talent is mostly good, but just because its good doesn't mean it fits.

It's not a linear story and it's not an abstract film. It attempts to take everything into account and put it together as one cohesive product. Individually, they're all great, but it never really comes together as the whole it's hoping to be. It's an ambitious and mostly satisfying view into the abstract mind of Ginsberg, but it still feels lacking. Or, maybe it's all in the feeling.