Spend a night with ‘Howl’, leave unsatisfied

Jennifer Orr
Journal Staff

Readers, Howl at the biopic that wasn’t. The documentary-turned-movie (2010, Werc Werk Works) has bouts of computerized Fantasia-like animation, dashes of archival footage, lots of famous people, and even more monologues. The film, however, is about the life, loves, and beginnings of poet Allen Ginsberg, with a focus on the 1956 publication of his then-infamous poem, Howl and the subsequent obscenity trial that followed.

It’s a lot of subject matter to touch upon in 90 minutes, but it didn’t feel touched. It was swiped.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman originally sought to make a documentary about the highly publicized 1957 Howl obscenity trial that landed San Francisco publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in a courtroom to defend its artistic merit, which Ginsberg did not attend.

Then, the two indie vets decided to create a biographical account of the events leading up to the trial, an idea that showed promise, especially considering the original research was intended for a documentary.

But no, the script failed to deliver, and the overall exuberance of the project was lazy. With its many monologue-packed scenes in which a young Allen Ginsberg, played by a slightly scruffier James Franco, who acted surprisingly near-perfect in this role, tells stories that are actually on record. It’s unfortunate that the directors were less inventive. Instead, they remained somewhere between historical accuracy and unnecessary entertainment value, trying to distract audiences from the laziness of the film along the way.

The unnecessary entertainment value can be attributed to a number of things. First, the all-star cast was unnecessary. With cameos as literary experts/witnesses in the Bay Area during the trial, there was Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, and David Straithairn – a pretty distracting group for extremely minor roles.

However, they were not as distracting as Jon Hamm, playing as the trial’s defense attorney. Imagine watching Don Draper from Mad Men (2007, AMC) in an ad meeting. He stole the show, and everyone around him looked like an idiot – especially Treat Williams, who played a goofy prosecutor who probably never should have passed his LSATS.

And the most unnecessary distraction in the name of entertainment was the damn animation that plays during the periodic recitation of the poem Howl in its entirety throughout the film. Perhaps the directors decided on this as a means to maintain the attention of audience members not familiar with the poem. If you aren’t familiar with the poem, why would you go see an Allen Ginsberg biopic?

Oh yeah, hipster points. That’s exactly what Epstein and Friedman seemed to be going for.

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