The hybrid Allen Ginsberg biopic/re-enactment/interview/adaptation Howl (2010) is a curious little picture. Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the film debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival to somewhat mixed reviews. Some reviewers praised the imaginative visual treatment of Ginsberg’s infamous poem, while others criticised a rather staid approach to the dramatic content. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it myself.
Howl is essentially composed of four interwoven elements: James Franco plays the poet, Allen Ginsberg, answering unheard questions from an off-camera questioner in a sort of interview, analogue tape rolling on the coffee table; Jon Hamm plays the lawyer defending Ginsberg’s publisher against charges of obscenity in several courtroom scenes; Franco (as Ginsberg), in black and white, reads Howl to an audience; and a separate, audio reading by Franco is set to shifting, mesmeric animations that attempt to interpret Ginsberg’s “angel headed hipsters”.
Without meaning to be too disparaging, the film does not always work in the way that it seems like it should, and this may well be deliberate. The problem then with this is that if this is a correct estimation, then that raises a number of questions over the soundness of the two writer-directors’ logic in making the film in the first place, but this should not act as too much of a stumbling block to engaging with what I think Howl is intended to be.
Firstly, while not exactly miscast, Jon Hamm (best known for his role as the enigmatic Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men) has very little acting to in the film’s only real dramatic role. Hamm simply stands in a courtroom and asks some questions. There’s no tension or drama in the courtroom sequences at all.
Secondly, fans of Franco will discover him mostly reciting a soft impersonation of Ginsberg, while sporting thick-rimmed glasses and what looks very much like a fake beard. The only real visual joy in Howl is to be found in the hypnotic animations that accompany Franco’s reading of the poem.
The point I want to make about this film is that it doesn’t seem to me that this film intends on creating a drama of any kind. This is a film that wants to ask capitalised “big questions” about the role of art in society. In fact, that’s basically what happens in Hamm’s scenes; he gets to be the voice of the directors, asking a variety of notable experts in literature whether they consider Howl to be art or not, and how they qualify their definition of art. Much of the interview section of the film deals with similar questions, all of which is fine and dandy, except that an audience going to the cinema to see Howl – even an arthouse audience, as this is inevitably the audience that Howl will attract – will not be expecting (or possibly even be willing) to really engage with these ideas, which have been widely explored for hundreds of years without definitive answer.
For all its merits in its audacity, Howl basically plays like a decent Sunday-afternoon TV docudrama. It may be considered by some to be art, but I imagine few will consider it to be cinema. Which in turn begs the question of why Epstein and Friedman chose to make this as a film. Why choose the interview format? Many of these sections show events from Ginsberg’s life in flashback, so why not make it a straight biopic? My theory is that by stripping it right down, Epstein and Friedberg thought they could focus more sharply on the aesthetic debate at the heart of the film, but this doesn’t answer the simple question of “why make a film?”
Watching Howl, I became aware that there was another film of unusual form which played at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival that had asked the same questions: Banksy’s art-prank-pseudo-documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). In its seemingly ponderous musings on street art, its mockery of Thierry Guetta/Mister Brain Wash and his fans, and its blending of fact and fiction, Exit Through the Gift Shop asked me all the same questions about both the world of art and its gatekeepers. The difference was that by making the whole movie in a recognised mode of filmmaking, Banksy’s film has no need to defend the veracity of its own form – a huge issue for one of the snooty literature professors called to the stand during Howl itself.