James Franco has very much been able to have his cake and eat it as of late, starring in the widely-acclaimed 127 Hours – for which he received an Oscar nomination – and then sink his teeth into something altogether less mainstream in Howl. Franco’s knack for imitation has served him well thus far – his uncanny imitation of James Dean in the TV movie of Dean’s namesake received universal acclaim – and while here, in playing American poet Allen Ginsberg, there is less of a burden to be uncanny (given the subject’s relative obscurity), Franco is nevertheless charged with a hefty task, to capture the spirit of a man whose work is of incredible artistic and political importance.
Howl is essentially a work of three parts, depicting the genesis of his eponymous poem as created through Ginsberg’s own life experiences growing up as a homosexual artist in post-war America, before turning to a more contemplative, post-Howl Ginsberg, and finally, documenting the infamous obscenity trial in which the moral and artistic fibre of the poem, and indeed, society, was put to the test.
It is fair to call Howl a bit of a mess, because these three strands of narrative rarely intersect in a way that seems logical or relevant. However, what this film lacks in coherence it more than compensates for in exuberance and the sheer compelling nature of the subject; the fresh-faced Ginsberg tapping away at a typewriter is intercut with several phantasmagorical animated sequences, while Franco provides a voiceover reading of the poem, granting an unusual and interesting insight into quite what Ginsberg’s world would look like in case you lack the imagination.
The central question the film asks is a deceptively simple one; what is obscenity? The U.S. Supreme Court defined it at this time as dealing with sexual material in a manner that appeals to a prurient interest, without any redeeming social importance. To a contemporary viewer, such a reductive definition seems laughable if not genuinely sickening, and as much as the film serves as a meditation on how society engages with, even refutes art, it is also an interesting time capsule for younger viewers into quite how far we have moved on from a mere half-century ago.
Much like Banksy’s superb Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, the question inevitably arises about what comprises art, and how this may impact on the social acceptance of someone’s work; after all, is Banksy’s work, which few will argue in legal terms isn’t vandalism, not excused because of its artistic proficiency? Similarly, a would-be artwork of low quality may be dismissed easily if it is also lacking in moral substance or, as the courts put it, having little redeeming social value.
Howl engages with literary critics in a fiercely intellectual manner, while smartly refusing to make a martyr out of Ginsberg or his work, avidly playing host to the various theses of revered critics, some who defend the work as art, some who revile it formalistically but defend its right to be published, and finally those who see it as an aberration to art itself and something of an affront to society, and therefore, find it worthy of banning.
While the link between Ginsberg’s own life and the poem itself often lacks cohesion, a solid case is made to explain in a broader sense why people make art, informed by what has happened to them in their lives. Especially entertaining is a scene in which a young, incredibly self-conscious, even pretentious Ginsberg attempts to write hearty prose about a sandwich, much to the chagrin of his friends. Shock for shock’s sake is certainly not courted in this film, for Howl instead argues that Ginsberg’s unarguably frank, quite possibly lascivious poem is something else altogether.
Howl’s biggest triumph, however, is that it never forces the viewer to revere the titular poem beyond its eminent value in testing the limits of society’s tolerance. While the animated sections make a mostly good effort of visualising Ginsberg’s work – occasionally elliptical and needless though it is – the film is very much more about art’s creation, and how it is perceived by the writer, the reader, the critic and the lawyer; how preconceived notions account for so much of a reader’s experience, and therefore that dissecting it in a courtroom setting makes little to no sense.
Oddly enough it is within the clinical confines of a courtroom that Howl is its most compelling, as a thesis on the poem’s inherent worth that’ll probably be about as engaging as watching ketchup congeal unless you’ve studied literature formally. The densely-dialogued nature of these intermittent scenes, however, gives the impression that there is plenty more to the argument, more that may have been better explored as a documentary rather than a compartmentalised treatise.
Nevertheless, it’s an educational and engrossing film for the widely-read viewer. It’s easy to see how it’s not the place for critics to decide a work’s intrinsic identity as a piece of literature, realised by Jeff Daniels‘ snarky professor character. The question – what creates literature – cannot satisfactorily be answered by anyone because nobody really has the authority to decide so. Instead, as is the perennial conundrum of art, we’re left to ponder for ourselves.
The censorship of such material seems laughable by today’s liberal standards, and while the ending still feels a bit like a sermon, Franco’s closing word about the potential for art to bring society closer together is important and well-intended.
Howl isn’t a great film, but it is a reminder that all great art has the power to change hearts and minds.
Howl is released in the U.K. tomorrow.