Allen Ginsberg’s landmark 1956 poem “HOWL” speaks to readers on multiple levels. Infused with the author’s passion, frustration and awe, it reveals the vast emotional canyons of his active imagination and the fervent countercultural environment in which he expressed it. At the same time, the lyrics erupt with an abstract surge of stream-of-conciousness inspiration that defies any particular narrative categorization, which makes writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s quasi-adaptation of the same name so problematic. By nature of its material, the project seems doomed from the outset. The movie, which eschews conventional storytelling in favor of a three-pronged approach to exploring fragments of Ginsberg’s saga, lacks both the sense of radicalism generated by the original poem and any sort of emotional validity on its own terms.
James Franco portrays the young Ginsberg as a nerdy, intense art geek — both a product of his time and a reaction to it, ground zero for the Beat Generation. In one of the plot threads, an interview Ginsberg supposedly conducted with Time magazine, the character explains how crafting “HOWL” allowed him to unleash his most extreme artistic proclivities and achieve honest self-reflection. But Epstein and Friedman provide no particular reason to become invested in Ginsberg’s creative plight, settling instead for more cerebral concerns: Another strand involves the 1957 obscenity trial in which a narrow-minded prosecutor (David Strathairn) attempts to get the book banned, while the cool-headed defense attorney (Jon Hamm, ostensibly on deadpan “Mad Men” autopilot) defends its literary merits. The dialogue, though cribbed from real court documents, sounds awfully stilted; beyond that, it seems like part of an entirely separate and less interesting movie.
Collaborating with artist Eric Drooker, whose visual renderings of Ginsberg’s work appear in the book “Illuminated Poems,” the filmmakers introduce a series of immersive animated sequences to enhance Franco’s readings of the poem. The imagery holds a power over the screen that makes everything else look dull. Franco’s monotonous rendition of Ginsberg’s recitation grows tiring rather quick. The third plot thread, a black-and-white scene in which the poet reads “Howl” to his first audience, takes the story in circles: It feels like a starting point, but Epstein and Friedman never provide the follow-up. Their original intention of making a documentary out of the material makes perfect sense: If Franco had been replaced with archival footage and recordings of Ginsberg’s real voice, the movie would seem less like a forced nostalgia trip than an authentic collage of the artist as a young man.
When Franco references other members of the Beat Generation, particularly Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, we see them portrayed on the screen but never gain an understanding of how their relationships to Ginsberg came together. (Ditto for his boyfriend, who never speaks a single line of dialogue.) As a result, the genesis of “Howl” is reduced to a network of uncertain signs rather than legitimate human characters. Ideas parade across the screen in search of a thesis. Although “Howl” technically didn’t provide Sundance with its opening night film — it was one of two competition films screened on opening night — it reeks of the stigma associated with the aforementioned slot: Poorly executed, socially relevant counterculture fetishization executed with a few familiar faces. Ginsberg says he reached “complete control” with his composition of “HOWL,” but the movie version apparently has none.