Directors: Rob Epstein & Jeffery Friedman

Cast: James Franco, Aaron Tveit, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary Louise-Parker, Jeff Daniels, Bon Balaban, Jon Prescott, Alessandro Nivola & Treat Williams

By Ana Kinsella

“Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it’s poetry.”

–  Mark Schorer, University of California English professor on the stand at the obscenity trial of the City Lights publication of ‘Howl and Other Poems’ by Allen Ginsberg in 1957.

Howl is a movie about a poem, not a person. Allen Ginsberg’s first performance of ‘Howl’ in San Francisco in 1955 was a paradigm-shifting atom bomb of an event, changing the way ordinary people engage with poetry forever. Ginsberg’s poem told of a young displaced generation shaken by the effects of World War II and startled by the anxieties of the Cold War, turning to drugs and sex as means of expression and survival. Needless to say, a lot of people didn’t like it. The language was considered unnecessarily vulgar, the images deranged and obtuse, the form stolen from Ginsberg’s poetic precursor Walt Whitman, the characters unrealistic and not representative of any America the scholars knew of.

The Ivy-League educated poet was doing something which wasn’t art and wasn’t literature, and because of this it was so obscene that the answer was to ban it and to put the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on trial for obscenity. Howl is the story of the poem and the subsequent trial. Stitching together reenactments of interview transcripts, court reports and a performance of the poem itself (all 112 lines of it), the film offers us an opportunity to imagine just how influential the poem’s publication was.

Franco makes an excellent, if far too handsome Allen, and throws himself into delivering an intense and engaging performance of the poem as well as an enigmatic personal history of the poet himself. The poem’s performance is illustrated with animations intending to depict the various segments of the poem, and the result is mixed. One of the literary experts called to the stand at the obscenity trial was Mark Schorer, who defended by the poem’s artistic merit by reminding the judge that “you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it’s poetry.” And it’s arguable that you can’t turn a poem into an animation, either.

There are few examples of successful cinematic adaptions of modern poetry. Generally speaking, the two art forms don’t mix too well. Here, some passages work excellently in cartoon format, but others seem childish and a bit weird. And while Franco’s performance of the poem itself is lifts the film from would-be reconstructed documentary to cohesive and well-formed narrative, it would have been interesting to see more signs of the epoch which produced the revolutionary and startling poem. Dragging Jon Hamm in from his Mad Men filming hiatus to play a lawyer isn’t really enough.

Today the late Ginsberg is regarded as canonical as a poet and groundbreaking as a public cultural figure who embraced his homosexuality in a difficult age, but it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking this would have been. Howl could do with taking some of the energy it spends on illustrating the poem and use it to give the audience a taste of the suffocating world of 1950s America instead. There’s still enough here to appeal to the person who’s not so keen on the poetry-side-of-things, but a knowledge of or interest in Ginsberg and the Beats might help.

Ana Kinsella

The Trailer to Howl

Howl is showing at The Irish Film Institute from the 25th