While biopics may be about the rebirth of a human subject in a movie, reinvention is another matter. And remaking human beings in one’s own image is best left to the business of religion, rather than filmmakers.
In the case of the movie Howl, what we have is a generically conceived 1950s Beat Generation, with late poet icon Allen Ginsberg reimagined through the lens of today’s generation, minus any palpable historical flavor or background, and with very different issues on their mind. Though perhaps the wiser choice for gay-centric directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk) would have been to learn from the past, rather than taking extensive liberties in imposing one’s own values on it, whether by distortion or omission.
Howl can actually be said to be three films of equal weight connected as one. Which often works unevenly as an intertwined collage, and on the other hand separately with the individual productions at times upstaging, competing or even contradicting one another with their distinct points of view.
And somewhat like the subject of madness and schizophrenia in that subversive, now classic poem Howl, the film Howl exhibits multiple split personalities of its own. Though when it comes to those verses despairing over the routine lobotomies inflicted back then on those who were simply in political, deeply emotional protest against an oppressive, postwar conformist society, today’s generation as possible clueless viewers, may be be said to be undergoing a different sort of conformity driven lobotomy. That is, via that array of digital social pacifier gadgets, more commonly perpetually attached to their ears.
In Howl, the most grounded section is a recreation of the events taking place at the historic 1957 Howl obscenity trial in San Francisco. During which City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, himself an acclaimed poet spawned from the Beat Generation but who gets to say nothing here, was charged with selling the indicted poem.
And interspersed throughout the proceedings as passages from Howl are read and scrutinized in court for allegedly offending references, are passionately inspired animated visuals conceived by graphic artist Eric Drooker. And finally, in the weakest third portion of this tapestry, is an impressive James Franco as Ginsberg reading the poem to enthralled spectators in coffee houses, being interviewed by an unseen journalist at home, and pursuing muses and gay lovers alike, some more receptive than others.
But the directors going about embracing Howl in this movie as a gay bible is just wrongheaded, and really shortchanging the depth of Ginsberg’s artistic awakening. Anyone familiar with Ginsberg and the thrust of his urgent early poetic themes, is aware that his primary obsession wasn’t homosexuality but rather a keen awareness of political oppression in its most universal sense, and a socially conscious clarion call for radical change and enlightenment. Whether focusing of Western imperialism or Eastern mysticism. Creative truths emanating from his words, that are best conveyed here by Drooker’s profoundly revelatory flights of fantasy filled with meaning.
And if there’s anything approaching a sensible way to assess Howl critically as a movie without diminishing any particular sector, I’m inclined to dish out four stars for Drooker’s animation, three stars for the trial’s eloquently vigorous debate on the essential meaning and merit of art in collision with antagonistic legal standards of society, and one star for a far from revealing portrait of the eminent, passionately irreverent poet, Ginsberg. Which seems to round out nicely to a three star review.