Howl (2010) dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco, Bob Balaban and Jon Hamm
By Blair Stewart
"I just find animation to be so....didactic."
-Actual quote from a jackass I knew in Toronto, August 2008
Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tackle 1950's poet Allen Ginsberg underground masterpiece "Howl and Other Poems" as its noterity took him overground in a triptych of re-enactment, courtroom drama and visual art. His slim collection of work that touched on drug use and homosexual sex in America brought about the ire of the conservative Right onto the indie publisher, setting up scenes of verbal sparring between David Strathairn prosecuting in the name of decenency and Jon Hamm in defense of free speech with Bob Balaban holding the gavel. Inter-cutting this drama is a Time magazine interview and the first public reading of "Howl" with James Franco as Ginsberg.
As the (in)famous writer Franco continues on a path of excellent career choices he's made since that burnout Saul in "Pineapple Express", his performance relaxed and unshowy barring the nerves on opening night when he let a bunch of drunk college students peek inside his brain. As Ginsberg launches into "Howl" the film once again inter-cuts to its final piece: Animation, and the reason why I started this review with that memorable quote.
In comparison the similiar work of Berman and Pulcini's "American Splendor" brilliantly broke the fourth wall to communicate Harvey Pekar's humanist autobiographical comics while Cronenberg grafted his own twisted fetishes on Burrough's "Naked Lunch". (Burrough's himself likely knowing a thing or two about a thing or two when it came to fetishes) What causes me concernation is the fact Epstein and Friedman of documentary acclaim with "The Celluloid Closet" and "The Times of Harvey Milk" keep returning to the same pail of water once the courtroom and Ginsberg readings run dry-I can only see the poems of "Howl" literally visualised with animated men playing flaming saxophones and bulldozers mowing down fields of flowers on female-shaped hills before I get queasy with baby-boomer nostalgia.
It's about as enjoyable as listening to another damn story concerning Woodstock, Hendrix and Haight-Ashbury or all of the above. On top of these repeated transgressions we also have to deal with the boldly underlined "free speech!" moment and the impact of Ginsberg's genius being expressed by the camera crash-zooming on the faces of kids hearing "Howl" and just having their minds totally blown, man. That might fly on HBO, but not so in the cinema. Ginsberg work had pockets of subtlety, pity the same can't be said for this film.
I couldn't resist:
"Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir!"
-"The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen, March 1998.