If you yearn for an alternative to the tired narrative structure of Hollywood films but want it without all the puzzling avant-garde vibes of a Terence Malick movie, perhaps “Howl” is a good pick for you. It’s experimental but stays largely within comfortable confines, shifting between various storylines tied together by Allen Ginsberg’s poem in a fairly standard non-linear format. The movie is overall not as provocative or engaging as it should be, but it does make give some interesting background on the discontent of the Beat Generation while also giving a portrait of a very interesting thinker.
Ginsberg is full of a cryptic intelligence and a paradoxically reserved openness thanks to a brilliant portrayal by the new millenium’s Renaissance man James Franco. Behind the cigarette smoke and tucked away behind the Ray-Ban lenses is a fully understood man, even if Franco doesn’t want to grant us full access to his mind. Call it the anti-”127 Hours” because rather than letting it all out in a furious display of emotion, he gets to do a slow reveal characterized by a careful restraint.
That doesn’t keep us from appreciating his portrait of Ginsberg. Much like he convinced us we were watching Aron Ralston and not James Franco, he gets lost in Allen Ginsberg, fully absorbing his strange vocal cadences while reading “Howl” and picking up his easy-going, laid-back mannerisms that also exhibit the pain he has experienced in the interview portion of the movie. It’s amazing what Franco can do when he sets his mind on acting because when he isn’t fully engaged in the movie, his boredom pulsates beyond the screen.
“Howl” is more than just the James Franco show, though, and it does more in 80 minutes than many movies do in two hours. The ambitious film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (two documentarians instrumental to making Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” work), tackles not only Allen Ginsberg but his effect on literature and American culture by also showing the obscenity trial surrounding the controversial poem that is totally separate from Franco’s Ginsberg. This section asks us to challenge where obscenity overlaps with art, a question that still plagues us today. What the two produce in their first narrative film is hardly a groundbreaking or game-changing film, but the experiment is hardly a failed one. If you want an introduction to Ginsberg’s enigmatic poem that will provide you some valuable insight into what exactly he meant – and what his work meant for society as a whole. B /