By Todd McCarthy/Variety
A Werc Werk Works production in association with Telling Pictures and Rabbit Bandini Prods. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Elizabeth Redleaf, Christine Kunewa Walker, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Executive producers, Gus Van Sant, Jawal Nga. Co-producers, Brian Benson, Andrew Peterson, Mark Steele. Directed, written by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman.
Allen Ginsberg - James Franco
Ralph McIntosh - David Strathairn
Jake Ehrlich - Jon Hamm
Judge Clayton Horn - Bob Balaban
Professor David Kirk - Jeff Daniels
Gail Potter - Mary-Louise Parker
Mark Schorer - Treat Williams
Luther Nichols - Alessandro Nivola
Jack Kerouac - Todd Rotondi
Neal Cassady - Jon Prescott
Peter Orlovsky - Aaron Tveit
That said, how many remotely commercial films have ever had the nerve to build themselves around core sequences consisting of long swaths of poetry being read to eager listeners, whose rapturous reactions are recorded in enthusiastic detail? So it is here, as vet documakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman anchor this searching work with the 29-year-old Ginsberg (James Franco) getting up in front of a beatnik crowd at San Francisco's Six Gallery in 1955 to read "HOWL" for the first time. Even if the shock that Ginsberg's bluntly sexual and provocative words carried then can't possibly be felt the same way 55 years later, anyone who revels in the pure pleasure of the spoken word will receive rare gratification here.
To examine the impulses that caused the words to be written, the filmmakers expand their work fourfold: first, with excerpts from a far-ranging verite-style "interview" with Ginsberg (with text drawn from assorted actual interviews the writer gave over the years); second, with elaborate animated sequences by former Ginsberg illustrator Eric Drooker that attempt, with varying success, to translate words into moving pictures; third, with a dramatic re-creation of the 1957 trial in which the prosecution attempted to outlaw the book by having it adjudged obscene and without redeeming artistic merit; and fourth, with renditions of key moments from the youthful Ginsberg's life, notably his interactions, carnal and otherwise, with such Beat Generation superstars as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Ginsberg's longtime mate, Peter Orlovsky.
In the interview, Ginsberg admits, among many other things, to his fear of his teacher-poet father's reaction to his work; his mother's madness; his sexual infatuations; his psychiatry-inspired breakthrough to live a fully honest, unconstrained life; and his view that "HOWL" was not, as some perceived, a promotion of the merits of homosexuality but at its heart an argument for "frankness about any subject." It's in these thoughtful, off-the-cuff interludes that Franco can come closest to fully inhabiting Ginsberg, which he does with great credibility; despite doubts going in about how plausible the handsome actor would be as the poet much more familiar from his later life as looking plump, balding and unkempt, it's a good fit in the end, physically and vocally.
The trial, cleanly and brightly rendered, is played without histrionics and with particular attention to how uncomfortable and clueless the prosecutor (David Strathairn) is with the substance of the text he's sometimes forced to recite in court. A parade of name thesps (Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, Alessandro Nivola) comes on to portray expert witnesses, while Jon Hamm, without having to much change his period look from "Mad Men," plays the defense attorney who ably steers the case being heard by a conservative, fair-minded judge (Bob Balaban).
Snippets from Ginsberg's intimate moments with his literary cohorts, as well as from his attempt to live a "straight" life, are little more than that, silent and fleeting black-and-white memories of loves yearned for, lusts consummated or not and acceptance found. There was certainly much more in Ginsberg's past that informed "HOWL" but is not shown here, particularly the more sordid aspects; this honorific treatment stands as the diametric opposite of the sensationalistic sort of biopic Ken Russell would have made had he been drawn to the subject.
But therein lies the rub. Russell's films, good and bad, had blood coursing through their veins, whereas this one, while clearly motivated to celebrate the life force embodied by Ginsberg and his work, is itself wood-dry. It's a paradox born of the film's fundamentally informational and historical perspective, one viewers will just have to live with.
Resourcefully made on a modest budget, the picture boasts top craft contributions from lenser Edward Lachman, production designer Therese DePrez and composer Carter Burwell, whose melodic, jazzy backgrounding mixes well with a number of period tunes.
Camera (Technicolor/B&W), Edward Lachman; editor, Jake Pushinsky; music, Carter Burwell; music supervisor, Hal Willner; production designer, Therese DePrez; art director, Russell Barnes; set decorator, Robert Covelman; costume designers, Kurt and Bart; sound (Dolby Digital), Jan McLaughlin; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Lora Hirschberg; sound designer, Tom Myers; animation designer, Eric Drooker; animation producer, John Hays; visual effects, Mark Christiansen; line producer, Lynn Appelle; associate producers, Peter Hale, Bob Rosenthal, Ken Bailey, James Q. Chan, Kelly Gilpatrick; assistant director, Tom Fatone; casting, Benie Telsey. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing, opener), Jan. 21, 2010. Running time: 84 MIN.
By Kirk Honeycutt/The Hollywood Reporter
PARK CITY -- You don't turn a poem into a movie and certainly not such a revolutionary, in-your-face, youthful and passionate work as Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." But then again, maybe you can, just not in the manner that longtime documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman presumed. In fact, they finally, in desperation, turned to the narrative format as they could find no other way to penetrate the 1956 literary work.
The movie mounts a four-pronged attack: animation, a simulated interview with Ginsberg (played imaginatively by James Franco), brief dramatizations of Ginsberg's life and a landmark obscenity trial that surrounds the birth of his game-changing poem all come together to capture how "Howl" landed in the middle of the Eisenhower era like a literary H-bomb.
"Howl" proved the perfect film to kick off Sundance 2010, a festival that means to rededicate itself to "cinematic rebellion" and indie experimentation. "Howl" fairly howls its proud defiance of commercial filmmaking norms. It's a heady flight into not just a particular poem but into the act of creativity itself, into how an artist breaks down barriers between himself and his art.
This exhilaration one feels watching this absorbing genre-bender doesn't mean the whole thing hangs together. It doesn't. The fragmented approach means some pieces don't fit, and you find yourself wishing for more of this and less of that.
Franco's Ginsberg is seen, in black and white, reading his poem in a Beat Generation coffee house to a young crowd growing more enthusiastic with each foray into homoerotic love, artistic hedonism and nihilistic drug-taking. A year or two later, the now established poet gives an interview -- this, like the rest of the film, is in color -- in which he explains his methods and reveals himself to be a disciplined, savvy artist fully aware of his craft.
Finally, there's the poem itself, imagined as you listen to its pulsating, on-rushing rhythms in surreal animation that feels like a contradiction -- a captivating nightmare with dark images that nevertheless appeal and attract.
Every piece of film involving Franco is terrific, but the problem is that there isn't nearly enough. The film barely sketches its hero and his emotional life. Some of this is even rendered in documentary-like revelations, about his mother and about his obsession with such Beat characters as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, rather than in fully scripted scenes.
The film never takes the leap into treating Ginsberg as a flesh-and-blood character but rather shoves him up on a stage or in front of a tape recorder as a cultural icon. Franco certainly delivers the performance, but the filmmakers haven't given it shape.
The animation, done in Thailand, is outstanding. If anything, you'd like to rerun just those sections, as "Howl" rages on the soundtrack, over and over again. They have a hallucinogenic feel that fits the poem like a glove.
The obscenity trial, frankly, could get lifted out, and the film would only improve. The courtroom footage is stiff and unconvincing. You get little sense of any of the personalities involved or what's at stake for them. Here especially the filmmakers' limited experience in feature filmmaking shows.
But what's cinematic experimentation without a few failures in the lab? Maybe that's why "Howl" is so appealing: The filmmakers don't get everything right but their passion for Ginsberg's genius and their excitement over trying to deconstruction a literary master work is contagious. A more perfect film might have been just a teensy-weensy dull.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: A Werc Werk Works production in association with Telling Pictures and Rabbit Bandini Prods.
Sales: Cinetic Media, the Match Factory
No rating, 80 minutes