nziff ’10: HOWL
Dir. Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman | USA | 2009 | 90 mins.

Documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are probably best known for their highly-praised 1995 film Celluloid Closet, about the depiction of homosexuals in cinema. It might make sense, then, that they’d try their hand at a biopic of the openly gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose era-defining poem HOWL was cause for a landmark obscenity trial in 1957, largely because of its overt sexual content. The directors’ valiant but ultimately failed stab at biography is four-pronged: there is a re-enactment of the trial; a re-enactment of the first reading of the poem; a series of computer-generated animations that attempt to illuminate stretches of the poem; and a re-created interview with Ginsberg, with occasional flashbacks to straightforward historical recreations—that is to say traditional biopic material—of scenes from Ginsberg’s life.

Ginsberg himself did not appear in court—his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was the one charged with distributing obscene material—and in the other three sections of the film he is portrayed by James Franco. The actor manages to get most of Ginsberg’s mannerisms and verbal tics down pat, but still doesn’t seem quite right for the part—he’s too young, too well-known for other, completely different roles, and not quite immersed enough in the character as even he might think. Perhaps the stand-up comic and actor David Cross, who briefly portrayed the poet—albeit at a later, more heavily-bearded stage in life—in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, might have been better suited to the role.

The court scenes are superficial and ridiculously dry, and feature Kate Moss-like paper-thin characters. It’s obvious in these scenes that this is the directors’ foray into fiction: we get no sense at all, for example, of what kind of person the judge was or why he might have reached his conclusion. The script might be directly from court transcripts, but it also seems to have been melodramatically embellished. Making matters even worse, the filmmakers opted for a number of fairly well-known actors for parts that didn’t really require them—Bob Balaban (Gosford Park, Best in Show) plays the judge, and Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels portray witnesses; David Strathairn is the prosecutor, and Jon Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) the defence attorney. Using such recognisable faces to prop up thinly-written characters is not only futile but wears thin, and becomes increasingly frustrating as the film progresses.

While the animation—computer-generated imagery featuring a Silver Surfer-type figure floating through a jazz-filled cityscape—is certainly well-done, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film: in illustrating what was once considered the height of obscenity, the filmmakers seem to have left out the truly obscene part—there are many penises and numerous phallic backdrops, but given the content of the poem, they should be much more… prominent. Moreover, the cgi is distractingly anachronistic, especially because much of the rest of the film has been treated, made to look like older film stock. Such a conservative attitude also infects the biographical sequences: what sliver of Ginsberg’s life we see has almost been washed clean, and his interactions with Kerouac, Burroughs et al are, bizarrely, relegated to the periphery.

The film, nominally a biopic but really more of an sketch of the life of the poet, elides the traditional introductory framework of a documentary and seems almost to assume that its audience knows about the ins and outs of the trial; very little set-up or exposition time is spent explaining the somewhat unprecedented nature of the trial (D. H. Lawrence’s trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the Old Bailey notwithstanding) and the impact of its outcome on publishing in general—matters discussed in Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg’s recent documentary Obscene.

Although their attempt is certainly admirable, the finished product is so hit-and-miss that it feels like a hodgepodge of three or four different films—especially crammed into less than an hour and a half. It’s a pity; without the courtroom drama, with its cheap, dry TV feel, and the short-film like animated sequences, the film would have had room to really explore Ginsberg’s life in a fictional setting—and Franco’s performance would have felt more natural, less contrived and forced.

HOWL will almost certainly be re-released at Rialto and similar cinemas.