08 March 2011

Howl - James Franco IS Allen Ginsberg!

One for the ‘angel headed hipsters’, Howl is a flawed attempt at telling the story of one of modern poetry’s best loved and most parodied works. According to directors Jeffery Friedman & Rob Epstein, the film is ‘a poem-pic‘ and not a traditional biopic. In this goal they are at least partly successful.

Alllen Ginsberg’s Howl is, along with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, one of the cornerstones of the ‘beat generation’, that group of writers who in the 1950’s transformed the American (and later the world’s) literary landscape and eventually influenced and helped shape the counter culture - or as, Ginsberg puts it; “just a bunch of guys trying to get published”.

The movie progresses in three ways: a documentary interview with Franco’s Ginsberg, Franco’s reading of Howl over the effective and visually appealing animation work of Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker and the dramatised obscenity trial where the prosecution tried to prove that the work had no literary value. Of these, the reading over animations works the best. The other two segments call to mind Mark Twain’s quote about how explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog – you understand the frog better but it dies in the process. Here, for joke, read poem.

Despite a short running time and a sharp, fizzing performance from Franco – a novelist as well as an actor himself - Howl could prove to be something of a slog for non-Ginsberg converts. To them I would suggest; buy the book instead.