‘You can’t translate poetry into prose. That is why it is poetry,’ explains a witness in the spectacular 1957 obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher of ‘Howl’, when asked by the prosecution to help make sense of some verses in Allen Ginsberg’s expansive, powerful 3,600-word outcry against conformity and injustice. It’s a compelling argument, and the fact that documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman decided to make it early on in Howl, a portrait of the late Beat poet and an illustrated vision of his most famous work, suggests the writing-directing duo is well aware of the bold venture they’ve undertaken in their first fictional film. It inevitably raises the question of whether it is indeed possible to visualise the passion, heart and soul of a poem such as ‘Howl’, which, in its entirety, reads as a man’s fierce inner monologue, a confession of his controversial thoughts, his deepest desires, his fantasies and anxieties, all carefully drafted in sharp, candid, yet mostly surreal language.
Combining recreated scenes from the courtroom with animated sequences that accompany parts of the poem, and a docu-style dramatisation of Ginsberg’s life, Howl is striking for its deftly interwoven structure. But what makes the film captivating is the surprisingly convincing performance by James Franco, who seems to have found true inspiration in the young, intellectually complex Ginsberg, impersonating him with an understated charm that shows his potential as a great character actor. Deliberate yet subtly persuasive, and fuelled with an overwhelming passion, Franco as Ginsberg reads the poem for the first time at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, sits in his New York apartment while talking to an unseen interviewer and recalls flashbacks from the past - in particular, the time he spent with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and his long-time lover, Peter Orlovsky, searching for truth and the meaning of life, and his own voice and personal liberation.
As in Ginsberg’s poetry, there is not really a beginning, middle or end to the film, apart from the verdict that is eventually revealed in the courtroom scenes. Instead, Epstein and Friedman compose the different narrative elements almost like a great piece of jazz: repeatedly drifting back and forth, varying style and technique, and free-associating ideas, especially in the animated sequences. In addition to the free-floating visual fluidity with which the poem unravels, what is essential to the film’s subversive charm is the rhythm of Franco’s voice: as he reads the entire ‘Howl’ in slow, radiantly emphatic intervals, his recitation is underpinned by a fiercely energetic verve that vividly brings the words to life, though without necessarily forcing their meaning upon the audience.
In their attempt to create a celebration of one of the most influential American poets and his revolutionary work, Epstein and Friedman aim high both aesthetically and conceptually, but they only really dazzle on the former level. Yet, although Howl sometimes feels long-winded and the animation might not work for everyone, the film remains in the mind as a visceral amalgam of words, images, streams of thoughts, confessions and feelings, employed in a daring fashion. Do you need to care about poetry to be able to enjoy the film? It might help. But even if you don’t, it is still a beautifully shot, softly nostalgic look into an artist’s imaginative, intense and troubled life. And just like the poem, the film is also much richer than any attempt to describe it.