Allen Ginsberg, visionary poet and writer of Howl is giving an interview. He’s not yet at the age of celebrity; he’s still vaguely uncomfortable in his skin. He still has remnants of what seems to be a stutter and though he’s not quite fidgety he still twitches at the weirdest of moments. As the interview unfolds he tells us about his life, wherein the film segues into black-and-white scenes that occur in nonlinear fashion. This is juxtaposed with the “Howl” trial – the 1957 obscenity trial where the Lawrence Ferlinghetti publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem was accused of perpetuating obscenity. All this occurs as we see Ginsberg at what seems to be the premiere reading of “Howl” at a club where his poetic lyrics are enhanced (well, in theory) by a series of animated images. That is, essentially, Howl – on a visceral level. If you follow me on twitter you may have heard me talk about its weirdness, which makes it all the more difficult to review.
I’ve had people calling this Franco’s year (although I think they were singing the same tune in 2008). Allen’s introspection may be wrong way to convince sceptics of Franco’s validity as an actor (I’m still generally on the fence about him, though I’m not against his star rising), and I suppose the reportedly visceral nature of 27 Hours, which I’ve yet to see, might be the more appropriate way for him to get recognised – hence the Oscar buzz. Still, there’s much to admire about his performance in Howl. The problem isn’t that he’s sidelined by his supporting players, he’s easily the strongest in the film, but the fact that this 90 minute spends so much time away from Ginsberg robs Franco the chance of delivering all that he can – though he does the most anyone could with the role. It’s not so much a physical transformation, as it is a psychological one. It’s striking too watch him be Ginsberg in all his emotional uncertainty.
The thing is, Howl is making a brave attempt to do something avant garde that it seems like a step backward to have the very tongue-in-cheek closing words of the trial set up the end of the film. We already know art is important, we already know that it isn’t easy and that shouldn’t be a victim to censorship but it robs the film of that ambiguousness that was working for it that far. It ends up making the film a little more tepid than we’d hope from something so seemingly experimental. Incidentally, though, it doesn’t make the film any less worthy of being seen. It’s the sort of movie where a grade can’t help but seem a trifle arbitrary (even though I spent a particularly long time trying to find one). It sort of reminded me of Antichrist - which I sort of hated, but was worth seeing anyway if only for its scope. It’s not exactly the same with Howl, I like it more – though it’s remarkably flawed. But it’s still well worth seeing.
C+ (but a B+ for intent, and another B+/A- for Franco)