Poetry in motion

James Franco's Howl proves more than the sum of its parts

In the film Howl, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman examine the creation, controversy and ecstatically earthy content of Allen Ginsberg's eponymous poem. Indirectly, the film's form evokes one of Ginsberg's Beat author contemporaries, William S. Burroughs, a proponent of the literary "cut-up" technique and collage-style narratives. Howl delivers a deliberately nonlinear cinematic collage rather than a conventional biopic, and is the better for it.

Howl cross-cuts between several narrative strands, with James Franco playing the poet. We see lushly colorful moments, based on courtroom transcripts, from publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 1957 obscenity trial for the release of "Howl." Also in that year, a bearded Ginsberg grants a revelatory interview about his life and artistry to an unseen journalist. Meanwhile, black-and-white flashbacks show the clean-shaved Ginsberg's public performance of "Howl" at San Francisco's Six Gallery, as well as moments from earlier in his life, such as his unrequited love for writer Jack Kerouac and his life-long devotion to Peter Orlovsky.

Scenes with Franco in a pristine undershirt at a typewriter make Howl look like a Gap ad, but the actor gives a rich portrayal of Ginsberg during the interview sequences. Ginsberg persuasively speaks about the need for one's literary voice to be as intimate and honest as one's interpersonal voice, and remarks matter-of-factly about his homosexuality, which proves particularly striking given that the Stonewall riots and gay rights movement were more than a decade away. Franco presents Ginsberg as a deep thinker who's comfortable in his own skin and humble before his muse.

At times during the public reading sections, Franco's imitation of Ginsberg's slightly nasal delivery sounds a little like Bullwinkle, but he relishes the rhythms of Ginsberg's trippy verses. Unfortunately, Howl chooses to illustrate the poem with extended, surreal animated sequences with spare lines and splashy colors that don't really evoke the period. At times the animation literalizes the poem, like the starving, hysterical and naked figure dragging himself through streets at dawn. Other times, the animator strays from the text for flaming typewriter keys, chatting skeletons and high-voltage brains, until the visual imagery distracts from Ginsberg's vocabulary.

In the trial sequences, David Straithairn's prosecutor and Jon Hamm's defense attorney argue over the literary merits of lines like "who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors ... ." Pompous, censorious critics played by Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels come across as easy targets, but the trial scenes acknowledge that censoriousness can be a human impulse. It doesn't just score points against the snobs in the name of the First Amendment.

Probably none of the film's sections could stand on their own, but collectively they dramatize a cultural turning point in artistic and sexual self-expression. Ginsberg reveals such details as the fact that "Moloch," his nightmare vision of American authority and materialism, also derived from his ideas about the sources behind his mother's mental breakdown. The film neglects to inform audiences enough about writer Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in a mental institution and to whom much of "Howl" is addressed.

Howl at times feels like a prequel to the film Milk, with Franco on camera, Gus Van Sant behind the scenes (as an executive producer) and tension between the corporate life of New York and the freedoms of San Francisco. But conventional biopics like Milk, however well-made, implicitly promise to get to the heart of an individual's biography and their significance. Howl instead takes a close reading of a poem and its literary footnotes, and if incomplete, it does justice to one of the greatest minds of a generation.