Howl is neither a biopic about the poem’s author Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), nor does it delve into any other poem in his literary oeuvre. These are the first of many missteps that the producers take in their approach towards the rich material of Ginsberg’s life and work. Instead, the focus, such as it is, centers on and circles around the 1957 obscenity trial that targeted Ginsberg’s first book of poetry, Howl and Other Poems. The movie is pieced together from (at least) three dissimilar styles of filmmaking that overlap and form a messy collage that’s meant to come across as Art. Instead, the result is a bric-a-brac production, whose competing visions defeat any narrative momentum. To suggest that these styles are meant to mirror the Beat Generation’s loose, unstructured approach to writing is a creaky idea, akin to believing that the emperor really is wearing new clothes.
For example, there are wearying courtroom scenes, heavy on exposition, with tricked out actors hamming it up in costumes borrowed from the Mad Men set; black-and-white scenes of “the past,” with James Franco as Ginsberg reciting Howl aloud to the black-bereted habitués of a Beat café; and, most regrettably, a neo-psychedelic cartoon version of the poem intercut throughout. Both the film, and the poem itself, are ruined by the literal, and to my eye, crude animations. The Simpsons episode built around Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven was wittier and visually more inventive.
The too pretty Franco as Ginsberg is as miscast as Gwyneth Paltrow was in Sylvia (2003). (Paltrow mistakenly played Sylvia Plath’s violent despair as whining petulance. It’s no wonder the filmmakers weren’t given permission to quote from any of her poetry.) Here, Franco imitates the rhythms of Ginsberg’s speaking voice, but is unable to plumb any emotion from the poem’s depths. At this point in his career, it’s time for Franco to play a distressed Lothario, like Binx, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and move away from these circumspect portrayals of gay men (see also Milk (2008)).
By what means then, could a filmmaker invent a visual language to complement, and illuminate, the complexities of an author’s life and work? I have yet to see better examples than Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) and Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990). Judy Davis, at the age of 24, delivered an audacious performance as Sybylla Melvyn, a young woman who defies her family, and the conventions of an early 20th century society, by choosing to live an independent life as a writer, instead of becoming a wife. Sybylla could have come across as merely selfish and uncompromising, but Davis also revealed the character’s doubts and fears. From the changes in her breathing and the cracks in her voice, to her stiff or slack body posture, you can feel her bristling from too many constraints. The film’s setting, in the untamed Australian outback, seems to reflect the condition of her soul. And, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that only through her writing will she find any peace of mind.
My Brilliant Career suggested that you’d need Sybylla’s indomitable will to become a writer. An Angel at My Table demonstrated something else entirely. When, as a girl, the New Zealand writer Janet Frame walks up to the entrance of a library for the first time, she looks up, as if to Heaven, and sees the capitalized word “ATHENAEUM” high and luminous above her. Despite a paralyzing sense of self-consciousness, several family tragedies, and the pains of suffering from mental illness, Frame’s eventual salvation comes through the reading and writing of books. In both movies, finding a writer’s voice–not the love of a man–is the moral of the story. As the films end, we hear these women in voice-overs, calm and assured, their intellects engaged and imagining. Armstrong and Campion are on to something: they created memorable films by working from the inside out. Howl, on the other hand, reduces the mythology behind an incendiary poem to a tired set of legal proceedings, and never gets beneath its high-gloss surface.
If someone happens to make another Ginsberg film, the way two successive Truman Capote films were made in 2005 (Capote) and 2006 (Infamous), then why not start with the less sensational poem “Kaddish,” which begins: “Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on/the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.” This understated and lovingly detailed elegy to his mother offers a much clearer glimpse inside the soul of Ginsberg than anything on display in this misconceived movie. Otherwise, I’d scrap the idea altogether and start fresh with a life of Frank O’Hara. My working title: Having a Coke with You.