While Hollywood adores biopics about poets, the more brooding and love-struck the better, it’s a rare thing to see a film take a single poem as its subject. But Howl, from Oscar-winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), does precisely that. Howl spends its over two hours helping us re-appreciate the titular poem, Allen Ginsberg’s Beat Generation epic of social critique and personal joy, and one of our century’s most significant, controversial and beloved works of literature.
More specifically, Howl helps its audience, likely familiar with the poem and author, re-examine how challenging and unprecedented this complex poem was in the context of its time. It encourages us to recognize that "Howl" not only changed the life of letters in America through sometimes-crude vernacular and new jazz-like rhythms, but it also changed the life of its author, who used it as a vehicle to assert his identity as a practitioner of same-sex love during an era when homosexual acts were deemed illegal in some places and a mental illness in others. Ginsberg’s poem was a howl of anger and hurt, yes, with its famous destroyed minds, "starving hysterical, naked," but also a howl of liberation and affirmation, as seen in the poem’s incantation-like "footnote": "The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy!"
A radical poem demands a nonlinear analysis, and Epstein and Friedman rose to the challenge by creating a stripped-down "dramatized documentary" that encourages the viewer to fill in the gaps with his or her own interpretation. The film shifts back and forth between several versions of and interpretations of the poem, all based on the historical record and transcripts. There’s a lengthy recreated scene of Ginsberg’s first reading of "Howl" at a club in San Francisco to an eager Beat Generation audience, alternating with a second reading of the poem accompanied by music and animation, so that during film we hear the poem in its entirety, some sections twice. Both readings are performed by the film’s star, James Franco, who, despite his movie star smoothness, does an uncanny job capturing the ethnic New York cadences of Ginsberg’s voice and his intense mannerisms without appearing to ape them. The animation, inspired by Eric Drooker’s 1996 illustrations of the poem, hews excessively close to Ginsberg’s wildly varying metaphors and images (indeed, there is an actual starving, naked man crawling through the streets in its very first frame), and yet it rarely intrudes on the aural pleasure of hearing the poem read aloud, providing instead a screen-saver for the listener. A better choice for accompaniment is the musical backing of this second presentation of the poem, which accentuates its lyrical qualities and its status as a precursor to Dylan, poetic folk-rock and countless earnest spoken-word artists in dim cafes, reciting poems to the rhythm of tapping feet and snapping fingers.
Any good work of literary contemplation needs analysis and context to go along with an immersion in the text. To that end, the film intersperses extensive recreated interview scenes with Ginsberg in his apartment, as he speaks of the poem’s origins in his own experiences as a patient in a mental hospital (he voluntarily committed himself)—where he met Carl Solomon, to whom Howl is dedicated—and his literary, social and sexual explorations with his fellow Beat pioneers Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The interview’s content is illustrated in black and white by a cast of young, attractive actors playing Ginsberg’s comrades-in-art Kerouac and Cassady as well as Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s love interest and eventual life partner. The scenes illuminate Ginsberg’s trajectory from a precocious but insecure member of the Beat clique, lusting ashamedly for one brash and brilliant straight friend after another, to a mature artist acknowledging his homosexuality as intrinsic to himself and finding lasting love. And inexorably intertwined with this personal journey is an aesthetic one, in which Ginsberg forms his theory of poetics, that the truest poetry should be like a "sigh" in words, a pure confession of inmost feelings. In order for him to write ideally, he had to acknowledge his true self, even, as he says in the interviews, the parts his father wouldn’t want to read; by expressing that aspect of himself through writing he gained authenticity and power as a bard. The poem isn’t just a "coming out" for the poet but a "coming out" for his generation, specifically the subset of men, gay and straight, who channeled their disillusion into wild bouts of anger and dissipated ecstasy.
Ginsberg’s struggle for personal, sexual and poetic freedom prefigured his poem’s struggle to see the light of day. Howl‘s most dramatic element, also broken up and interspersed throughout the film, is a re-enactment of the landmark free-speech trial that surrounded the publication of Howl and Other Poems by City Lights Books. In 1957 the San Francisco District Attorney’s office sued Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had published and distributed Howl in his bookstore, for obscenity, and the literary merit of the poem was debated in a courtroom by a parade of academics and critics ranging from the stuffy to the prescient—providing occasion for cameos from Mary Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels as a pair of imaginatively limited witnesses for the prosecution. The lawyers for the city and for Ferlinghetti, played by David Straitharn and Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm respectively, hammer out their contrasting visions of what constitutes redemptive literature and free expression, the former often angrily quoting from or discussing words or phrases in the poem that have the edgiest content. There is little suspense here: of course, had the prosecution been victorious, the poem might have been a black-market curiosity rather than a storied bestseller. The judge, played by Bob Balaban, declared the poem to have enough merit to not be obscene—and Ferlinghetti, the poem’s publisher, was off the hook. These scenes, even without Ginsberg physically present, are riveting. The filmmakers pick the choicest bits of the transcript to dramatize, offering us a genuine look at the vigorous, sometimes nasty, debate the poem inspired soon after its publication and the shock its language was capable of causing (and its still is; radio has faltered in presenting all of "Howl" because of fears of FCC fines).
Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were interested in publishing poetry, not in provoking a trial. The interviews contained in the movie don’t shed direct light on how the notoriety and fame that ensued affected the poet’s sense of self or artistic mission, whether he felt as vindicated by the verdict as by the whoops and applause in Berkley’s coffeehouses. But we do know that Ginsberg threw himself into political causes around freedom of expression, peace and democracy for the rest of his life, even getting publicly arrested several times. Watching the trial juxtaposed with Ginsberg’s discussion of the birth of his muse, it is evident that the California courtroom helped his already-commenced crusade for openness, both artistic and social, to go public, and he embraced that publicity with warmhearted zeal.
The trial was a watershed moment for freedom of speech and expression in America—but the genius of the film is in showing us that writing the poem was simultaneously a watershed moment for Ginsberg’s freedom of self-expression, the permission he granted himself to be himself, which gives particular resonance to phrases in the poem like "O victory forget your underwear we’re free." Despite the pain, isolation and rejection he faced as a young man, Ginsberg was an optimist about the human spirit. "Howl" as a poem excoriates society as oppressive and conformist, anticipating the forces that would later attempt to censor its publication. But it claims for its human subjects joy in the face of that oppression, anticipating the enthusiastic readers who loved the poem despite, and because of, its ecstatic transgression. Franco’s performance, and the film, do an impressive job of distilling that essential aspect of Ginsberg’s work and personality: the humanistic animus that makes him more than just a poet emblematic of his times but one whose words can still both disturb and give comfort today.