I first heard they were making a movie about "Howl" sometime last year. I was sitting in a classroom at Naropa. Everyone kind of laughed at the idea and thought it wouldn't be any good. Then I saw the trailer. I wasn't sure what to make of it. James Franco seemed a good fit for Ginsberg, but the animation and the scene of Allen and Peter howling were a little off-putting. Still, I was interested.
My introduction to poetry was not Allen Ginsberg, but Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I had just discovered Beat literature and began devouring books as quickly as possible, but I remember being somewhat hesitant about exploring the world of poetry. My only experiences with it were in high school English class, which I (and pretty much everyone else) hated. It was something like a revelation to read A Coney Island of the Mind, to see the plain-spoken language, the lines that ran all over the page, and the humor.
Not long after, I read "Howl", learned about the Six Gallery reading, the obscenity trial and the question was: how would they handle all of this?
The movie cycles between five different kinds of scenes: the "interviews" with Ginsberg, where Franco talks to an interviewer that is never shown, giving us the sense he's talking directly to the audience; brief flashbacks to key moments in Ginsberg's life; the animation, which is based on Erik Drooker's work in Ginsberg's Illuminated poems; the Six Gallery reading; and the trial.
This sequencing is a nice way to handle so much varied material, but one of the most immediately striking things about this movie is how little interaction there is between the characters on the screen. Ferlinghetti never speaks. Neither does Kerouac or Orlovsky. This lets the audience know the focus is on the poem, not the characters and experiences who inspired it.
However, this does minimize the impact that the flashbacks have on the audience. Unless you already know the history behind the poem (I assume most people who attended this movie did), they are not likely to feel significant. Howl tries to make up for this through Franco's interviews, which certainly provide context to these scenes, but this does not make the characters or their relationship to Ginsberg feel real.
Then there's the animation. At best, it is adequate. I think the movie would certainly be missing something were it not to be included, but Drooker's style works better in a book than a movie. This, I think, is more of a problem with the transition between mediums than anything else. Were Blake's illuminated books to be turned into a film, I believe a lot of their charm would also be lost.
Of all the scenes, the most effective were the Six Gallery reading. Franco's delivery of the poem shows he has listened to Ginsberg's performances, that he has read and studied the poem. they show a great deal of the poem, allowing for every section, even the footnote, to be read aloud. One thing I was surprised about, though, was that explication of the line "listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox", was strangely absent from the film. Not only does it reflect the post-war era, it was also one of the key phrases that Ginsberg thought represented the compositional breakthrough in "Howl."
Leaving the theater I didn't feel like I had gained any new insights into the poem. It was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, but unless you're a devotee to Beat literature, or you don't know anything about it (but would like to), I'm not sure this movie will be worth your while. By far the most fascinating part about Howl, is the fact that it exists. This is not The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, nor is it an adaptation of one of Kerouac's novels--it is a movie about a poem. In a world where poetry is practically invisible in mainstream culture, a movie like Howl could attract more readership and interest, which is always a good thing.