The Beat Generation seems to be catching another wave of interest recently as modern filmmakers struggle to bring never directed visions to the silver screen, although it would be probably more correct to say that Beat poetry and prose never went out of style managing to carve its own niche in minds of scholars and literary rebels from around the world. I guess Howl has been made for this type of public – however you might call it: my people, our people or just these people – that appreciates Beat Generation's immortal energy and anger still rediscovering Ginsberg's greatest poem as it's been coined yesterday. And there's nothing wrong about it as some gutsy art just never gets old, in the worst case just sinking in to become a distinctive, cultural background.
Howl definitely carries the message with its vivid animation sequences by world famous, Leftist illustrator Eric Drooker, who put a lot of work to translate Ginsberg's poetic jazz into spiderweb of breathtaking images – I'd say it's the best thing about Howl, a kind of Waking Life stuff. A lot of work has been done by young James Franco as well, who plays Ginsberg in the movie treating his persona as it's been handed down on a plate with relaxed interpretation and no trace of pretentiousness (this self-conscious burden, that kills plenty of potentially great roles every year) although maybe short of some insight. Eventually we need to bow down to script writers, who cared about original trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti so much, that they copied its words verbatim, which helped the actors to get a firm ground for character development.
The film hovers around Allen Ginsberg's personal life, his debut in The Six Gallery in San Francisco and the famous case of alleged obscenity filed against City Light Books in 1957, which originally issued Howl. The poem itself becomes a leading thread, a narration and a pretext for overlaying it with stunning animation for which the trial stands as a back story weaving in and out, either meeting it straight-on or jumping to "interview with Allen Ginsberg" and then carrying on. However we might find this concept, as fas as doing a simple portrait of one of the most important American contemporary poets is concerned it quite fits the picture. Thus we get through Ginsberg's homosexuality, his affair with Neal Cassady, his stay in mental institution and obviously his friendship with Jack Kerouac, and you won't hear a bent out note, oh no... the problem is that you won't get jerked up either.
For that reason my feeling about Howl is mixed. Film's irectors (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) lost a big chance to come up with a bigger picture of Ginsberg's life, his significance for counterculture of the 60's, for gay movement or for American poetry/art in general. Frankly it feels like cutting corners – Howl lacks emotional depth, rarely sparkles and after all doesn't come up with a flash of brilliance (I always expect)... in other words it fails to deliver spiritual madness of Beat Generation... this element, which for me is the most important, secret ingredient of their classic writing. Too normal for me? I'd say so, this is not what you really expect from a film about a guy, who at one point wanted to load everybody with LSD and Hare Krishna chants. Couldn't they reach for a little bit more than just a simple framework of legendary crumbles – however neat it is? I guess, we'll still have to wait for a talent, who wants to fuck Beat Generation open and show its dark underbelly.