Take a Drink: for animation
Take a Drink: for cocks
Take a Drink: for drugs
Take a Drink: for typewriting
Do a Shot: whenever Jon Hamm sasses someone
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
James Franco has been tagged with a bit of a pretentious stereotypical college undergrad repetition with his recent artistic choices. Cormac McCarthy? Check. William Faulkner? Check. Chuck Palahniuk? It’s coming! A recreation of the explicit gay scenes excised from William Friedkin’s Cruising?
So, it’s no surprise he also tackled the Beat Generation, but perhaps a little bit of one that he didn’t play Jack Kerouac. He seems like a guy who considers himself a Kerouac. Instead, in Howl he plays Allen Ginsberg, particularly as he was writing his seminal (hehe) poem Howl, and then with his publisher on trial for obscenity charges after it was published.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman clearly want to express the cultural revolution that Ginsberg, Kerouac, and their ilk set in motion as creatively and kinetically as possible. They threw everything they’ve got at the screen, including animation, stock footage, black and white, many shades of filtered color, French New Wave touches, and even original sources. The script is built from court transcripts of the actual case and interviews with Ginsberg, and is strongest when the real voices of history make themselves heard.
At its best, Howl digs into what it means to write, to pursue art and devote your life to it. What exactly constitutes art, and how can you qualify it as real or not, or distinguish between it and merit-less smut? The trial is fascinating, both in its particulars, and how spectacularly it failed. All it did was drum up publicity for Howl, which became a bona fide sensation and inspired countless artists after it to push the boundaries of convention and taste.
The film also assembles one hell of a cast, including Franco, Jeff Daniels, Bob Balaban, Mary Louise Parker, David Straithairn, and John Hamm, all of which do a great job in varying amounts of screentime. John Hamm’s inspired defense lawyer put-downs of the prosecution are my favorite, though.
Franco isn’t the most intuitive choice to play Ginsberg, but he does quite well… except for his voice. It sounds exactly like James Franco imitating Allen Ginsberg, which becomes a really grating affectation during the frequent voiceovers of him reading excerpts of Howl. Ginsberg basically looks and sounds exactly the opposite of James Franco.
… or David Cross, however…
The many animated sequences (again, during the reading of Howl) are another weak point. They’re a nice stab at putting visuals to Ginsberg’s firecracker verses, but fall short because they’re a bit too low-rent, and cheap computer game-esque in execution.
Howl is a very stylized look at a pivotal work and historical moment in American cultural history.