Arts & Events

Film review: HOWL Opens September 24 at the Elmwood in Berkeley

By Gar Smith
Monday September 20, 2010 - 03:46:00 PM

Howl is an unusual hybrid — a feature film and a documentary interrupted by a turbo-charged acid trip. It’s a film of three parts: a POV interview with the poet, a courtroom drama, and an animated evocation of Ginsberg’s breakthrough poem. 

Thanks to James Franco’s pyrotechnic recitations (and Erik Drooker’s phantasma-gorgeous animated interpretations), this may be the first time a team of award-winning directors and actors has been upstaged by a poem. (Hopefully, one of the bonus DVD features will be an uninterrupted version of Drooker’s visual rendering of Ginsberg’s poem.) 

Documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” “Celluloid Closet”) call this their first “feature film,” but it’s really a documentary in feature-film trappings. Howl introduces actors playing Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy but these beat masters don’t have a single word of onscreen dialog. They appear in silent, mime-like montages serving as On-the-Roadmarks to Ginsberg’s voiced-over recollections of love unrequited, love requited and lost and, finally, love redemptive. 

Franco does a fine job channeling Ginsberg’s voice and cadence, both in full poetic cry and in casual, spontaneous, unrehearsed meander. When he dons a pair of thick-framed glasses, his resemblance to the young Ginsberg is uncanny. “Howl” fails to show Ginsberg “walking the angry streets” or interacting much with the world and only begins to soar with its restaging of the first public reading of “Howl” and the subsequent SF “obscenity” trial. 

Ginsberg makes no appearance during the third of the film that depicts the trial. Instead, he’s seen cemented to a sofa alongside a silently spinning two-reel tape-recorder as he addresses — at length — an unseen interviewer (who is heard asking only one question). The setting tells us there is no question that we are hearing Ginsberg’s “exact words.” 

The courtroom sequence, which will decide the fate of City Lights Bookstore owner and “Howl” publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is the classic movie cliché. An earnest young defense attorney squares off against an older…, well, “square,” public prosecutor while a poker-faced judge calls the time-outs in a battle of pugilistic jurisprudence. Sadly, the filmmakers leave Ferlinghetti (the only character in this tale who is still alive) to sit and watch silently as the debate over Ginsberg’s poem — and the attendant cultural debate about freedom of speech, the death of the pin-stripped Fifties and not-so-immaculate conception of the Sixties — rages around him. 

Ferlinghetti’s lawyer, Jake Erhlich, is played by “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm. Even Hamm admitted that it was a challenge to play a character dressed in post-50’s attire without being mistaken for Don Draper. The biggest problem, for those who remember Jake Erhlich, is that Hamm is such a hunk. Whenever he rises — slowly — to address the court, he looks like a Trident missile rising out of a silo. Prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (Academy Award-winner John Stratham) begins the trial looking like a worthy adversary but winds up looking like a rattled rabbit. There is a marvelous moment (apparently true, since the script was drawn from trial transcripts) when McIntosh becomes so flustered at his inability to understand the defense’s argument that “obscenity” could be “art,” that he explodes in a moment of wild frustration and unwittingly blurts out a spontaneous “beat howl” of his own. 

Small production effects fall short in a few spots. Ginsberg’s 30-something stubble is not convincing and a recurring visual trope in the Howl animation (glowing bodies racing through the sky and leaving luminous trails) unfortunately echoes the CGI effects from “The Fantastic Four” and a currently running TV ad for Cascade dish soap. 

Ginsberg, who, in his later long-haired-and-robed incarnation, was a familiar and soothing sight at anti-war protests on the Berkeley campus and around the Bay Area (ringing cymbals and singing Hindu devotionals), originally arrived in the Bay Area in 1954 and settled in a Berkeley cottage in the 1600 block of Milvia. 

The reading at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955 featured six poets (“Six at Six”). The event was hosted by Kenneth Rexroth and included readings by Phil Whalen, Phil Lamantia, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure who read “For the Death of 100 Whales,” a poetic precursor to the modern environmental movement. Ginsberg didn’t mount the stage until around 11PM. Holding pages of his still-unfinished poem and fortified by several glasses of red wine (courtesy of Kerouac, who had passed the hat earlier in the long evening), he began a reading that would reverberate like Gabriel’s Trumpet. 

In the restaging of the Six reading, Franco revels in Ginsberg’s words, gaining confidence as the astonished audience responds with rising enthusiasm. Raising his eyes from the page to make eye contact with the crowd, he his begins to bob and weave as the audience bursts into laughter and shouts at the audacity of his words. Franco makes the most of some of the best lines an actor could ever wish to howl, memorializing those “who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to bold Bronx on Benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo.” 

Later, Ginsberg would recall the “strange ecstatic intensity” that gripped both poet and mob. At the end, Rexroth was in tears and Ginsberg also wept. McClure rose to declare: “In all our memories, no one had been so outspoken in poetry before.” Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg the next day and “Howl and Other Poems” soon appeared as part of City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series. It originally sold for 75 cents and has since sold nearly one million copies. 

The film ends with one of those “what-became-of” summations of the major characters — providing a reminder that, alone among all these departed luminaries, we still have dear Lawrence Ferlinghetti with us. (Today, the former gallery at 3119 Fillmore is home to a commercial establishment but, if you wander to the rear of the store, it is rumored that you can still see the remains of the slightly elevated stage on which Ginsberg stood and Kerouac lounged during that epochal reading a half-century ago.) 

As the bios scroll, Ginsberg’s craggy voice fills the theater singing “Grandfather Death.” His faces only appears momentarily — just at the end, singing the last line of the song and raising his eyes to the camera with a sly grin. As the final credits roll, so does the voice of Ginsberg acolyte, Bob Dylan, who joins The Band for a fine, howling rendition of “This Wheel’s on Fire.” 

(Parental Advisory: Raw language and flying CGI characters with genitals.)