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STUDIO: Oscilloscope Laboratories
RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes
- James Franco in conversation with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – an all new feature length audio commentary
- Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl – featuring directors Epstein and Friedman and stars James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Straithairn, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, poet Anne Waldman, and others
- Directors’ research tapes – original interviews with Ginsberg’s friends and collaborators Eric Drooker, Peter Orlovsky, Tuli Kupferberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Steven Taylor
- Allen Ginsberg reads Howl – never before seen footage from a performance in 1995 at the Knitting Factory in New York
- James Franco reads Howl audio feature
- Allen Ginsberg reads Sunflower Sutra and Pull My Daisy – never before seen footage from a performance in 1995 at the Knitting Factory in New York (Blu-ray exclusive)
- Q & A with directors Epstein and Freidman moderated by John Cameron Mitchell at the Provincetown Film Festival (Blu-ray exclusive)
Twenty Four Hour Poetry People
Directors: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
Writers: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
Cast: James Franco, David Straithairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams with Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels.
In 1955, Allen Ginsberg (Franco) goes from an unpublished 29 year old poet to figurehead of the Beat generation thanks to Howl, his idiosyncratic and highly provocative depiction of the world. Ginsberg’s initial hesitance towards releasing the poem is soon vindicated when its stark, often sexual content makes it the subject of great controversy and, eventually, a lawsuit. Attorney Jake Ehrlich (Hamm) defends the work and its under-trial publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) from prosecutor Ralph McIntosh’s (Straithairn) case that it is “obscene”, while Ginsberg himself recounts the experiences and loves from his travels that created it.
Being a film fan is tricky. Every so often a movie comes along that gets a raw deal, sometimes through no fault of its own. For whatever reason, almost everybody has mixed feelings or an allergic reaction to this cinematic experience. Except for you. You love this misunderstood film and you simply have to share it with your friends and colleagues. The only thing is, you often know even before you mention it that this plea will fall on deaf ears either because of the film’s reputation or the audience you’re selling it to’s good taste. Or both. In their defence, it’s hard to get too excited by the prospect of a film you “probably won’t like, but should see anyway.” It’s a bit like trying to talk a partner into a dreaded sexual act which just happens to be your favourite. “It would mean a lot to me and I know you’ll get something from it too, even if you don’t feel that way in the moment.” That kind of thing. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a good recent example of this.
I fully expected Howl to supersede Edgar Wright’s unfairly maligned slacker romp on that list. In fact, I expected Howl to barge into that list’s head office and make out with its entire female staff before heading home with the photocopier and all the leftover donuts. It’s got a great cast ranging from its A-List star to the always dependable Bob Balaban and a fantastic set-up – the Howl trial was a landmark moment in the history of American literature and art censorship more broadly. There is a lot to like about Howl. An awful lot. In taking a figure as inspirational as Allen Ginsberg and focusing on his titular magnum opus, writer/directors Epstein and Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) bring poetry out of the workshop shadows and onto the big screen with some flair. As someone who’s written and performed his own poetry live, it’s heartening to see the current red-headed stepchild of the literary world receive this kind of love-letter. Extended sequences of animation literally bring Howl to life, often beautifully so. Foregrounding the film’s inspiration this way is certainly an interesting and bold decision. How much attention did Shakespeare In Love pay to the Bard’s actual writing, not the catalysts for it? Not enough to make them characters in their own right, that’s for sure. Howl, on the other hand, explores just that prospect, creating a fractured narrative where we delve between the past, the present, and more through the poem that started a revolution.
Beneath the film’s heady depiction of smoky poetry readings and intellectual rebellion beats the heart of a fairly typical outsider movie. The young Allen Ginsberg’s journey is not that different from the classic teenage misfit; a slightly fey, tweed-clad 80’s John Cusack character specifically. He hangs out with his friend Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and experiences a series of unfortunate romances with straight men. Only instead of riding around in his car on rainy nights and kickboxing, Ginsberg pours his frustration into his poetry, using the typewriter as his punch-bag. James Franco is fast becoming one of the most respected young male leads around and it’s no surprise: the wiry neuroses he lends Ginsberg is a reminder of his ever-growing versatility. In just over ten years, he’s gone from charmingly naive on Freaks and Geeks to outright goofy in Pineapple Express and beyond. However, it’s his portrayal of Scott Smith from Milk to which this performance bears the greatest resemblance. There’s more to the comparison than matching persuasions, though. If Milk showed Franco could escape the common pitfall of making homosexuality a gay character’s defining characteristic, Howl shows he can make an audience forget they’re watching a gay man.
Until he starts talking candidly about anal-sex and fellatio via voice-over, that is.
Ginsberg references homosexuality throughout his work and during the interview/flashback segments. Rather than trust these words to engage on their own, Epstein and Friedman force the issue with all the subtlety of a darkened teenage fumble. Consequently, we’re treated not only to Franco’s spirited readings in person and through narration, but also a blow-by-blow animated adaptation of his efforts. Sometimes, literally blow-by-blow. Poetry, perhaps more than any other literary form, is resistant to this kind of treatment. Allowing one’s influences and reactions to form a unique interpretation of words is arguably even more vital to poetry than it is to prose – it’s the unwritten rule of reading/listening. To deny the form this process is to deny its very nature, its abstract essence. English Professor Mark Schorer (Deep Rising‘s Treat Williams) even observes “poetry cannot be translated into prose” during an early court scene. But Howl wants to do the heavy lifting for us: the word “universities” causes buildings made of books to appear. A string of cross-country sex triggers a car to go where no car has gone before. I’ll leave it up to you to guess what a cottage in the woods conjures.
It’s one thing having an illustration or two in a book to help build atmosphere or accompanying poetry with piano or guitar as Carter Burwell’s twinkly score proves. This is something else entirely. However striking Erik Drooker’s artwork might be, it seldom enhances Ginsberg’s words. It’s infinitely distracting when – very often literal – animated representations of couplets and stanzas are thrust upon you as you’re absorbing the poem itself. One too many moments of juvenile sexuality (penis trees) only emphasise the point. Cynics might argue that said penis trees and their ilk are merely one “reading” of Ginsberg’s words. That would be a perfectly valid point were it not for the animation presenting Ginsberg as a character within his own work, thereby suggesting “this is the real reading.” You don’t need to be a poetry fan to know that’s just not what poetry’s about. Poetry is best received either reading alone or in the company of respectful listeners, not while waiting for a train, or walking through a noisy city, or anywhere else that allows outside influences to corrupt our own mental “re-composition” of the piece. Howl adds “or while having it ‘translated’ into a cartoon” to that list. In red permanent marker.
Being gay in the 1950’s, even in the more progressive likes of San Francisco, was a very different prospect than it is today, of course. During his early 20’s, Ginsberg finds himself in “the loony bin” for 8 months. It’s there he meets Carl Solomon, the man he’ll ultimately dedicate Howl to. Epstein and Friedman portray Disapproving Straight Man in a way quite unlike typical “queer” cinema. The homophobes of Howl are not drunken bigots who hassle “angel-headed hipsters” on the street or in bars à la Boys Don’t Cry or Brokeback Mountain. They’re the doctors trying to “cure” those like him from their so-called “illness” and draconian literary types like English Instructor Gail Potter (Mary-Louise Parker) condemning his work. Franco’s skittish smile is a constant reminder of the struggles faced to this day by everyone with this “condition” – the fight to accept oneself as different but not dirty in the face of an opposing majority; the urge not to hide yet the painful reality of isolation. Although it’s not Ginsberg himself but rather Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Howl‘s publisher, facing imprisonment, the author is no more divorced from the legal proceedings than a mother or father is the trial of their offspring, as anyone who’s ever written a word will likely testify.
The young Ginsberg travels across the country with his friend and sometime lover Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), finding his voice along the way. These experiences, along with his eventual romance with Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), are accumulated mostly in bedsits and backrooms, far from the eyes of Middle America, Bohemia acting as both a safe haven for free-thinkers and pseudo “criminal underworld.” Only sympathetic liberal minds such as literary critic Luther Nichols (Nivola) can illuminate Ginsberg’s words to the sheltered masses, showing those largely disinterested by poetry that Ginsberg is not the scruffy deviant his detractors claim, but, in fact, an unlikely voice for disenfranchised post-WWII youth, both gay and straight. A voice that would come to reach generations long after his own.
Howl, then, is a docudrama with the emphasis on the “docu.” There’s no room in a film as tender as this for gavel slamming and screaming objections, but the trial portion (comprised, like the rest of the film, from close reworkings of the actual records and interviews with all the key players) lacks any real excitement. Even an actor as fine as David Straithairn finds it tough to make Ralph McIntosh work as more than a clumsy cypher for fundamentalist myopia. The prosecution lawyer is written vaguely enough for only the character’s figurative side to work, resulting in a rather toothless opponent for Jon Hamm’s suave defender Jake Ehrlich. Jeff Daniels, who turns in a memorable performance as David Kirk, another blowhard English Professor, suffers from the same problem. Every dissenting voice in the film is presented as their bohemian opponents would depict them, like one candidate writing his rival’s election speech. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem. However, Howl calls a great deal of attention to its part-fact, part-fiction experimental form. Before the credits have even rolled, a smug title card explains that “every word in this film was spoken by the actual people portrayed. In that sense this film is like a documentary. In every other sense, it is different.” If the people crying wolf back then were really so incapable of making their case, how they managed to take Howl to trial is quite remarkable. Committing neither to pure adaptation nor documentary was brave, but it’s this idiosyncrasy that, unlike its subject, frustrates rather than invigorates.
This two-disc special edition set (including Blu-ray and DVD) comes in a handsome, eco-friendly mixed sources case decorated with paintings of the cast – a nice nod to the film’s central trial. Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl delivers exactly what it promises with directors and cast-members alike sharing their thoughts on Ginsberg and how the project slowly came together thanks largely to executive producer Gus Van Sant who was instrumental in bringing Franco aboard. Viewable as a whole or in sections on Blu, it’s best when dealing with the film’s period production design. Countless bonus docs have the usual “well, I loved the script…” actorly musings; examining how a handful of artists transformed contemporary New York into 1950’s California is far more rewarding.
Some of the directors’ research tapes featuring interviews with the real Ferlinghetti, Orlovsky, and others offer little the film doesn’t, aside from the chance to see how closely some of the actors look to their real-life counterparts. A feature on writing with James Franco is an obvious missed opportunity. The 127 Hours star whose debut short story collection, Palo Alto, was recently published, doubtless has a few things to say about writing and this otherwise exhaustive package is the perfect place for it. Contrasting readings of Howl – one by Franco and one from Ginsberg during a 1995 performance in New York – as well as a jovial commentary with the filmmakers and their star are nice touches though.
Two more grainy hand-held videos of Ginsberg’s performances (Sunflower Sutra and Pull My Daisy) and a stodgy Q & A with Epstein and Friedman moderated by John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) at the Provincetown Film Festival are exclusive to Blu-ray. The latter goes over much the same ground as the documentary and mostly amounts to back-patting amongst friends. Still, its good to see a release embracing the dual format with some hi-def special features. Picture and sound quality is first-class on DVD and Blu-ray. The black and white flashbacks look authentically hazy; the “present tense”/animation sections boast lots of lovely autumnal browns and yellows. Presentation clearly means a great deal to Oscilloscope and this title shows just how meticulous their eye for detail really is. Not to mention their talent for self-promotion; no less than 8 trailers for their releases such as Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, and, of course, the feature presentation are also available.
There’s a good chance you won’t like Howl. A very good chance. You should see it anyway, though. It’d mean a lot to me if you did.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars