Thursday, January 5, 2012

Howl is an almost-interesting movie about a fascinating poem

Franco = not that douchey!
And the problem isn't even Franco! I really wanted to like Howl, last year's Sundance baby about the first reading of, and subsequent obscenity trial for, Allen Ginsberg's seminal (pun intended) Beat poem of the same name. And I almost did.

Franco plays, or rather ventriloquizes, Ginsberg. The film's "script" is entirely comprised of trial transcripts, interviews, and the text of the poem itself. One group of actors, including Jon Hamm (yum), Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeff Daniels, re-enact the 1957 court case where Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his San Francisco based City Lights press was put on trial for publishing Ginsberg's work. With the exception of the portrayal of Ferlinghetti, whose expressions range from queasy to dumbfounded to mildly sedated, this is the strongest part of the film. It is equal parts maddening and illuminating to watch a parade of "experts" discuss the relative literary merit of "Howl," and to see the defense attorney (Hamm's Jake Ehrlich, the inspiration for Perry Mason!) tie them in knots.

One's ability to enjoy the segments reproducing Ginsberg's legendary Six Gallery reading of the poem largely depends on one's tolerance for hipsters. Since these were the originals, I didn't mind it. Franco does a decent job replicating Ginsberg's distinctive nasally New Jersey vowels, and the poem itself is a tour de force cri de coeur that just cannot be uninteresting. The reading is annotated, in a way, by "performed" interviews with the poet, and some reenactments of famous shots of and by Ginsberg featuring figures from the piece.

The third element of Howl is the weakest, to my mind. During the reading, long animated sequences replicate the poem's images. Though the animation is beautiful, it's self-indulgent and WAY too literal. It attempts to narrativize and seamlessly reflect Ginsberg's poetic language in a way that reduces the scope and power of the words themselves. One of the expert witnesses smartly counters the prosecution attorney who is trying to get him to admit he doesn't understand the poem because he is reluctant to offer a word-by-word summary by pointing out "One can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry." You can't translate poetry into a cartoon, either.

Howl is a hybrid documentary that is unquestionably lovingly made, informative, and experimental. Problem is, the results of that experiment are pretty inconclusive.

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