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On DVD: “Howl” is a Well-Acted Yet Well-Worn Documentary

On DVD: "Howl" is a Well-Acted Yet Well-Worn Documentary

James Franco may earn an Oscar nomination for his performance in “127 Hours,” but let’s not forget his decent caricature of Allen Ginsburg in “Howl,” a film he might have been better recognized for come awards season had it been a more generic biopic rather than the multi-technique documentary that it is. And yes, I seriously consider the film a documentary, in spite of the fact that it features very little “real” footage and stars well-known actors like Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels.

Directed by the great, Oscar-winning gay-issue documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt”), the film depicts Ginsberg’s famous debut of his poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery Readings, the 1957 obscenity trial involving Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publication of the poem and a few early memories of Ginsberg’s times with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Peter Orlovsky. None of these sequences contains much drama nor do they otherwise infuse any kind of fictionalizing of events, all of which seem to come from either court transcripts or interview materials.

So they’re simply re-enactments, the kind typically employed for documentaries in lesser capacity and with unknown actors in the roles. The trial segments reminded me particularly of Brett Morgen’s unconventional documentary “Chicago 10,” which also primarily entailed re-enactments based on court transcripts. In that film, the big name actors only provided their voices to animated versions of the real-life figures. Hank Azaria served double duty, voicing both Abbie Hoffman and a floating Ginsberg. Because of the circus that the Chicago 7 trial was, that film’s re-enactment is also a lot more entertaining than the dull and repetitive testimonies staged in “Howl.”

Supplementing the relatively inexpressive re-enactments is an animated adaptation of the titular poem. This also-broken-up sequence is credited as being inspired by “Howl,” no more than the visualized interpretation, some of it quite literal, of the filmmakers and illustrator Eric Drooker. That would be fine if it wasn’t accompanied by Franco’s reading of the poem as Ginsberg. I have almost the same issue with this as I do with Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe,” which cheesily illustrates most of the Beatles catalog. I’ve never had a real connection with “Howl” like I have with the Beatles’ music, though, so it didn’t immediately seem so tarnishing. I imagine those with greater interest in poetry, especially this poem, would find this to be the greater offense.

Music, after all, has long been visualized in film and music video. Poems, particularly narrative epics and ballads, have been adapted, as well, but less so with the source material synced to it. Poetry, to me anyway, is too much about verbal language to associate it so closely with crudely animated illustrations. Now anytime I hear or read “Howl,” I’m likely to picture naked, gangly bodies copulating in free fall and trees that are actually giant penises. Not as terrible, I guess, as seeing soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty through the Vietnam jungle whenever I hear “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” but still a major frustration.

While Taymor is an admitted ignorant when it comes to The Beatles, however, there is at least much appropriateness to the employment of Drooker as the animation’s designer. He previously statically illustrated Ginsberg’s work in “Illuminated Poems” and, most fittingly, a graphic novel version of “Howl” (his painting “Native New York” also previously inspired lines in a Ferlinghetti poem). Drooker directly collaborated with Ginsberg on those works, and the poet was excited about his words being visualized for “today’s lowered attention span TV consciousness” (quoted from the back of the graphic novel). This validates Epstein and Friedman’s choice, but it doesn’t make the process any less disappointing for me. Also, I guess this in part makes “Howl” a comic book movie, and a redundant one at that.

But I might have an even bigger problem with how tedious and reiterative the animation seems as the film commences. I actually found much of Drooker’s imagery quite stimulating initially, but it lost me as it continued on. Part of the reason for this could be its being intertwined with the more monotonous and well-worn sequences depicting the trial and a lifeless documentary-like interview segment with Franco as Ginsberg. Overall there isn’t much to “Howl” that you couldn’t get from reading the actual transcripts and poem except for the overpowering interference of celebrity faces. Some of them remind too much of other characters, too — Parker is just Nancy Botwin with a bad wig; Hamm is just Don Draper as an attorney. Bob Balaban is Bob Balaban, as always (this I can’t ever complain about).

I commend Epstein and Friedman for trying something new with both documentary and biopic form, but I wish there was something more engaging than what’s on screen for the film’s 90 minutes.

Also on DVD/Blu-ray this week:

“Catfish,” which I named one of the ten best documentaries of 2010 (also see my defense of spoilers for the film here).

“Machete,” a guilty political pleasure that I spouted about here.

“The Last Exorcism,” for which I looked at the debate about the ending here.

“Dinner for Schmucks,” which I wrote about as being hysterical yet horribly hypocritical (I also compared it to the French original here and the similar film “Dogfight” here).

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