Howl is the name of both a poem and a film. The poem is meant to be recited in one breath. Literally, this applies to each individual line, though some of these are so long that doing so is hardly practical. But the poem as a whole is a scream of outrage, pain, love, and joy so pure that through all its long lines and the different moods of its four sections, it achieves a single mass that breathes out in one great wind what Allen Ginsberg had to say about the young people of his generation and the oppressive shadows under which they were born and the courage with which they could or might escape, at the moment in 1955 when he wrote the poem. It expresses one thought and one movement of the soul.
Howl the film is meant to be one breath as well, but it makes the bold move of breaking up the poem and scattering the pieces throughout its running time. Precisely by disrupting the unity of the poem, the film creates just as careful an artistic unity of its own. It remains a seamless garment, woven of three or four threads that intertwine so closely with each other, another thread taking up the weight instantly and smoothly as soon as one slackens, that the film moves much as the poem does: without pausing, in one great blaze of passion.
One of the threads is the 1957 obscenity trial, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of Ginsberg’s book Howl and Other Poems, faced potential jail time if it was found not to have “redeeming social importance” to make up for its sexually explicit content. The film reportedly hews close to fact here, lifting the script directly from the transcripts of the arguments and testimony. The prosecutor (David Strathairn) awkwardly reads naughty passages from the poem and grills English teachers and literary critics on whether this or that word is necessary to add literary value, while remaining stolidly oblivious to the golden river of sound and image flowing past him. When the poem says, “…and were red eyed in the morning but were prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake,” how can such a line be questioned? How can anyone quibble about “snatch” when it is part of such music? But, of course, those with the law in their charge cannot afford to be too sensitive to beauty. Besides, if it were not true that one person’s music is another’s noise, there would be no need for such trials—which is precisely the point.
The problem is not entirely that the poem is so new and revolutionary; one witness opines that it has no literary validity with regard to form precisely because it is not innovative, but instead imitates a form used by Walt Whitman eighty to ninety years prior. (He must not be crazy about Shakespeare or Donne.) The problem is rather a lack of imagination among those who desire censorship, who assume that because their eyes are blinded by the glare of language they are unaccustomed to, there is nothing there to see. Tellingly, two witnesses testifying against the book not only admit but emphasize that they did not spend time with the poem, but made their judgments quickly, not questioning the shock of their first impressions.
The trial scenes, then, are not without some human interest. However, all they really shows is how dull the whole affair was. The speech about the importance of free speech to a liberal society made by the attorney defending the poem (Jon Hamm) is heartfelt, and the decision of the judge, well played by Bob Balaban, is heartening to hear (we are told early on that the judge leans conservative, though we don’t hear the story about his sentencing some women shoplifters to watch The Ten Commandments and write essays on its moral lesson), but neither contains anything that seems particularly surprising or hard-hitting today. At the end of the day, the entire courtroom portion of the film is concerned with the legal and procedural, and these matters are very dry bones next to the letters of fire they are concerned with. It is a case where what is said is vastly more interesting than the simple right to say it; however much we all depend on the latter as citizens, it is not our concern as readers.
Another thread is an interview with Allen Ginsberg, in which, like the trial, all the words we hear are historically accurate. However, these scenes avoid a “documentary-like” portrayal: tricks with picture and sound, such as one spoken line briefly overlapping with the next as we switch camera angles, deliberately remind us that we are watching an artificial recreation of an imagined reality. The interviewer is not shown, so these scenes are carried entirely by James Franco as Ginsberg, who is warm and likable in the role. He discusses his struggle to write honestly, to stop imitating what he already knows and be open with himself about his feelings—including his homosexuality, which his desire to conceal from his father is one of his main reasons for being reluctant to publish the poem. Fortunately, lest we think the transmutation of a feeling into a great poem happens automatically, he also makes clear how much detail work there is, how much thought went into the construction of those long flowing lines.
The occasional, mostly wordless flashbacks to the scenes the later Ginsberg describes are fine, but are not meant to carry the film by themselves. They bring us rather to the third and most important strand of the film: the poem itself. The poem is presented to us through a reenactment of its first public performance in 1955, during which sometimes the matter-of-fact black and white cinematography depicting the Six Gallery in San Francisco gives way to trippy animated sequences visualizing some of the imagery in the poem—the result perhaps of taking literally to heart the poem’s mention of those “who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness,” etc., but the decision was not an inspired one. Or perhaps (who can say) it’s only the animated images themselves that lack inspiration, and if the sinewy and uncomfortably muscled naked figures flying from those sketchy streets up into the stars had something more surprising to show us, they might be worthy companions of Ginsberg’s vivid language. Either way, they must unfortunately be regarded as well-intended superfluities.
Franco’s actual reading of the poem is good, though a little out of order and cruelly abridged. Wisely, it attempts neither the overwhelming force that the hypothetical ideal reading of the poem would have, nor a historical reconstruction of the young Ginsberg’s expressionless declamation. It’s more like an attempt to imagine the voice that might have been in Ginsberg’s head as he composed: passionate but uncertain, strong but awkward, intellectual and painstaking, it’s the heart of Franco’s performance, and it anchors the film.
Such are the pieces. They fit together surprisingly well. Pace is everything in Howl, and it is the film’s greatest strength (at least until near the end, when it becomes a little too slow). This is a feat in itself, but it is not quite enough. Ultimately we learn nothing from dissipating the poem that we might not have learned from keeping it in one piece. The film is an engaging presentation of part of the poem and part of the history surrounding it, but it doesn’t offer the kind of grand synthesis that would validate it all. It’s good, but it’s nothing really special. That, not the lines that are missing from James Franco’s reading, is its biggest difference from the poem, which is very special indeed.