Oscilloscope // 2010 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 6th, 2011
The poem that rocked a generation.
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night..."
The year is 1957. The place is San Francisco. Writer Allen Ginsberg (James Franco, Spider-Man) has just published his poem "Howl;" a distinctive work which has generated a great deal of controversy. Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) has been taken to court for charges of obscenity, as many feel the poem is simply too explicit for publication (it contains strong language and frank references to homosexuality). As prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck) and defender Jake Erlich (Jon Hamm, Mad Men) go head to head in front of Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban, Gosford Park), freedom of expression hangs in the balance.
I've read "Howl," but I'd be lying if I told you that I understood all of it. Certainly there are portions that resonate with me and other portions that I find strikingly written even though I'm unsure of their meaning. The raw power of Ginsberg's language and the relentlessly inventive, impassioned nature of the poem make it a rather unforgettable experience even for a poetry novice such as myself. After hearing Ginsberg read the poem in a public forum, fellow poet Michael McClure said, "Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America."
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl is appropriately titled, as it isn't so much a Ginsberg biopic as it is an in-depth examination of his most famous work. It takes an unusual approach to its unusual material, successfully fusing documentary elements with traditional filmmaking techniques to create a film that can't easily be categorized. It isn't a documentary, but every word contained within the film was actually spoken by real people. It isn't an animated film, but it features a good deal of animation. It isn't really a drama or a comedy, though it contains elements of both. Essentially, Howl is simply a film which is about what it's about in as many ways as it can think of. I suppose it belongs on the shelf right next to Orson Welles' spellbinding F for Fake (though it isn't quite as hypnotic as that great film).
The movie is divided into three different areas. It flips at will between the three over the course of its scant 84 minute running time. The first area offers Franco reading Ginsberg's poem. There are a few moments in which we see him reading to a crowd (these moments are presented in black and white), but most of the time the readings are accompanied by animation which elaborates on what's being read. Sometimes the animations are fascinating (particularly the haunting "Moloch" sequence), but other times they feel like too literal interpretations of the text. The images often adopt a bizarre sexual vibe, such as the scene in which a lot of trees turn into erect penises. The penises then ejaculate into the air, and the semen explodes like fireworks. Indeed.
The second area allows Franco to re-enact a series of archival interviews with Ginsberg. Mixing and matching stuff from a variety of interviews over the years, Franco adopts his best Ginsberg voice and speaks at length about his assorted inspirations for Howl. We learn some about Ginsberg's personal life during this time (such as his friendship with Jack Kerouac and his romantic relationship with Peter Orlovsky), but only if the information is somehow pertinent to the creation of Howl. There are moments when Franco/Ginsberg elaborates on what certain portions of the poem mean.
The third area presents a re-enactment of moments from the "Howl" obscenity trial. This is the most conventional portion of the movie but also the most compelling, as it's the only part of the film that offers a sense of narrative purpose. Also aiding this portion of the movie are the fine performances of the actors involved. Strathairn and Hamm are superb as the dueling lawyers, while the likes of Mary Louise-Parker (Weeds), Treat Williams (Everwood), and Jeff Daniels (Gettysburg) appear as colorful witnesses. Daniels in particular is a riot as a pompous literary scholar; it's hard to believe that a real human being actually said the things Daniels' character does. In a lovely touch, Strathairn plays the prosecutor not as a simplistic force of oppression but as a genuinely puzzled man who just doesn't understand what redeeming value this peculiar poem could possibly have. "Honestly, I feel it's just a lot of sensitive bull -- -- ," he says sheepishly.
One of the most striking and truthful things about Howl is the manner in which it suggests that the poem isn't meant to be easily understood. We hear it interpreted by multiple individuals over the course of the film, all of whom seem to have a different take on what grand thing it is trying to say. Ginsberg's explanations are often the most humble. When asked why he included a particular word in a particular line, he says, "I don't know; I had to finish the line somehow." The entire work is read in chunks over the course of the film (certain sections are repeated), and by its conclusion we are better able to appreciate its significance, beauty and mystery. Even if small parts of the film don't work here and there, such an endeavor is a commendable thing.
The hi-def transfer is a mixed bag, as the assorted sections all fare differently. The best looking moments are the black and white scenes, offering crisp detail and excellent depth. The interview sequences also look good, but they tend to be much flatter in general. The courtroom scenes have been given an intentionally soft look; perhaps to suggest that the film is taking place in the past. As such, detail suffers a good deal during these moments. The animated sequences are surprisingly the weakest visually, as banding lines appear all-too-regularly and the level of detail is less pristine that you might hope. The audio is fine, but it's an awfully quiet, uncomplicated track. There isn't a aural moment in the entire film that will cause the viewer to sit up and take notice; it's a simple dialogue-and-music mix (Carter Burwell's low-key score does serve the film nicely, though). Volume-wise, it's also a good deal quieter than most Blu-rays I've dealt with, so you'll need to crank the audio up higher than usual.
The disc fares better in the supplemental department, as a variety of compelling items are available for your perusal. The package kicks off with an audio commentary from Franco, Epstein and Friedman. A lot of interesting stuff in this track, particularly when they reveal that the film was originally intended as a documentary. "Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl" (40 minutes) is an excellent making-of piece, while a Q&A with the directors (22 minutes) provides even more info on the film's journey to the screen. You also get the director's research tapes (28 minutes), offering interviews with some of Ginsberg's friends, plus footage of Ginsberg reading the poems "Howl" (25 minutes), "Pull My Daisy" (1 minutes) and "Sunflower Sutra" (8 minutes). Finally, you get an audio-only version of Franco reading "Howl." Oh, and there's a DVD copy of the film. Both discs are housed in a rather handsome cardboard package, which is aesthetically pleasing yet scratch inducing.
Most of the film works, but a few tidbits simply push too hard. Aside from the aforementioned animation choices, I couldn't help but roll my eyes whenever the film would offer reaction shots of people responding to the reading of "Howl." In almost every case, we get footage of extras nodding as if to say, "Yeah, wow, right on, man." It seems a little too staged, as if the audience is already aware of the poem's historical importance rather than being awed for the first time by its energy and invention. Additionally, the film tries too hard to play up Judge Clayton Horn as a "conservative judge," as if that's going to tip the scales in the prosecution's favor. As played by Balaban, Horn never comes across as anything less than completely fair and balanced.
Howl is one of the most distinctive films I've seen recently. It isn't an unqualified success, but it's certainly worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Archival Footage
* Audio Reading