“Sir, you cannot translate poetry into prose,” remarks academic Mark Schorer (Treat Williams) during a section of Howl covering the 1957 obscenity trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous poem. “That’s why it is poetry.” Schorer is commenting upon the prosecutorial style of San Francisco attorney Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn), whose case against the controversial piece involved asking “expert witnesses” to concretely define the various sexual allusions and lyrical abstractions that Ginsberg liberally sprinkled throughout his masterwork. However, he could very well be referring to the plight of writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, whose film attempts to tease out the legal, social, and biographical significance of Ginsberg’s groundbreaking generational ode without explaining away its propulsive, elusive essence. Documentarians whose previous films chronicled such LGBT topics as queer representation in American cinema (The Celluloid Closet) and the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany (Paragraph 175), Epstein and Friedman have publicly stated their desire to forego in Howl the talking-heads-and-archival-footage approach in favor of something more diffuse and allusive. This turns out to be a triptych structure, which interweaves a re-enactment of the 1957 obscenity trial; an imagined interview with Ginsberg (James Franco) occurring at roughly the same historic moment as the trial, accompanied by brief flashbacks to Ginsberg’s younger self; and a recreation of Ginsberg’s original reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. As Ginsberg recites the poem onstage, surrealistic animated interludes illustrate its images and ideas.
It’s a noble effort, but all the well-intentioned narrative curlicues in the world cannot obscure the conceptual dullness at Howl’s center. For what does this refracted take reveal to us about “Howl”? Well, that its author fits snugly into a long cinematic lineage of scruffy yet photogenic outsiders, all of whom spin personal suffering into artistic gold. Young people and liberal-leaning academics tend to “get” form-pushing literary works, while stodgy old folks scowl and raise an eyebrow. Oh, and censorship: definitely not a good thing. Read Matt Connolly’s review of Howl.