One of the best things about Boston is its wonderful Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Sometimes overlooked by Boston College students because it isn’t in the center of the city, the museum nonetheless has a collection that numbers in the hundreds of thousands of pieces. Last week, the MFA hosted an intimate advanced screening of the film Howl. The film, which stars James Franco as famous beat-poet Allen Ginsberg, was, in its own way, a magnificent piece of art that seemed at home in the spacious museum.
The film takes its name from Ginsberg’s eponymous landmark poem. For those who aren’t familiar with the man, he was a leading figure of the Beat Generation, a group of activists who championed individuality and loathed conformity. Shortly after the first spoken performance of Howl at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the masterpiece found itself at the center of an obscenity trial. Keep in mind, this was the era of McCarthyism in which Americans feared for the preservation of their values; for a work of literature like Howl which spoke so freely of sex, drugs, and violence to come onto the scene was seen as an attack on the nuclear family. Quite fairly, I think, Howl takes a primarily academic yet engrossing look at the trial that surrounded the poem, one at which Ginsberg himself never appeared.
Essentially, Howl could have been a wooden, book-on-tape sort of biopic, but thanks in part to the revelatory Franco and his supporting cast, it transcends the niche audience it is clearly geared for and works its way to a beautiful hybrid of documentary, narrative, and animation. Longtime documentarians, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who both appeared at the MFA screening) look at the beatnik’s life from three angles. The first, and most effective, is a mock interview with Ginsberg, in which Franco is able to work his magic. Franco immerses himself in the role, injecting his Ginsberg with the tiniest of tics (the inflection of his voice when he gets worked up, the way he waves his arms about manically at times). In every sense of the word, he disappears into the character, at times almost freakishly so. Through this faux interview, which features exclusively real quotes from the poet, we are privy to his every intimate moment. The rest of the film is dominated by the court case in which prosecutors tried to prove that the poem was indecent and held no literary value. These scenes stumble only when not in the capable hands of Jon Hamm, the defense lawyer for the publisher of Howl. Not straying drastically from his Emmy-winning Don Draper, Hamm mercilessly slashes at the prosecution’s feeble arguments.
The film sparkles with originality when it utilizes animation to explore the sometimes ambiguous and complicated poem. With Franco’s haunting voice reciting the piece in the background, cartoon hipsters sweep across the sky while buildings transform into the horrific Moloch “whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!” The film reserves all the cliched biopic histrionics for this section, a tactic that works brilliantly. Here, Hamm’s arguments are transformed into moving images that vividly illustrate just how much literary value Howl both had and has.
Sprinkled here and there are notable faces like those of Mary Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels, both playing witnesses for the prosecution. Though blessed with the gift of Hollywood’s finest actors and actresses, the directors wisely choose to keep the weight of the film on Franco’s shoulders. If I have one complaint, it’s that at times the film comes off as too intellectual. I would’ve liked to see more scenes showcasing Ginsberg’s life outside of his poetry, rather than the fleeting montages that the picture offers. As it stands, Howl excels as an honorific piece, one that pays overdue homage to one of, as Ginsberg himself puts it, “the best minds of [our] generation.”