HOWL: A review

You would think that "starving, hysterical, naked," the most iconic phrase of Allen Ginsberg's poem "HOWL" and perhaps even of the Beat Generation, would come to describe the film built to represent it. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film, however, is a nontraditional docudrama soaring through windows of courtrooms, coffeehouses, and Ginsberg's immaculate apartment, searching for cohesion with audience in tow.  At first it seems that Epstein and Friedman may have missed the mark with adorable Franco, his trendily decorated apartment, smoothed-over CGI (computer-generated imagery) sequences, and such a higher-ed slant on obscenity trials that university affiliates whooped during the screening. But then you realize what happened: The writer/directors hit their mark just fine, missing Ginsberg's by - dare I say a generation? - without so much as a nod to the distinction.

There seems, throughout the film, an unchecked urge to portray Ginsberg as a well-liked hipster whose poise and self-deprecation slide "HOWL" onto the shelf right up there with "Leaves of Grass."  Though Franco seems to have mastered the voice of a Beat right down to the tobacco rasp, he sits among hard covers, sipping water from detergent-shiny glasses, looking rested and revelrous. My father's jokes about '80s Bible movies come to mind: "Now that he's walked ten thousand miles in the desert, look how clean that hair is!" And we do, if we know the Beats, expect some grime - greasy hair, yes, but also some shut-off electricity and empty cupboards. On the flip side, we might anticipate some pastel curtains or elegant silverware, because maybe that's just what was there; something - anything - to ground the hipster chic in penniless, outcast reality.

The CGI animations interject their thick, swirling, angel of death-style characters into the narrative tag team between courtroom and Ginsberg's apartment. The impossibly smooth, well-endowed creatures who alternately swarm the screen and haunt the space between skyscrapers while falling paint a picture whose abstract aura and textureless presence clash magnificently with the overblown specificity of Ginsberg's allusion-filled poem. The function the images perform - to illustrate and "music video-ify" a core piece of Beat writing - is important, but the good decision to thus flesh out Ginsberg's words for film is unfortunately undercut by the poor stylistic execution.

The film is undeniably beautiful, though. It does for aspiring writers what "Save the Last Dance" did for ballerinas and "Bring it On" did for cheerleaders - takes the sexy essence of an artsy extracurricular and assembles what amounts to an alluring feature-length trailer, which is a limp piece of art albeit powerful in its ability to inspire. Think school-supply shopping; think armed forces commercials. The lack of grit enables this function - a smoother rendering of a gnarled story makes for a more consumable product and a simpler experience more likely to register with general audiences.

The way the poem's story is rendered through CGI and biographical anecdotes, however, is not without shock value. The Avatar-like creatures of the animated dreamworld wear their genitals as proudly as crowns, copulating as often as they swoop in and out of the frame. Biographically speaking, the stories teased out of Franco by a perpetually disembodied interviewer depict homosexual relationships amidst insecurity, grand theft auto, and heterosexual marriage. And though true to Ginsberg's life, these events seem to happen in a vacuum, cutting off before they hit chaos and screeching to a halt before Franco gets to try his hand at despair. Thus, the film's graphic nature is all for naught: Much as the prosecution tries to argue within the plot boundaries of the film, the film itself fails to justify the obscenity it so liberally employs.

If you're looking for a few clips to illuminate the controversy surrounding "HOWL" and the Beat Generation, or if your mature class could use a hint of inspiration when it comes to what writing can do, the film will be useful. Given mature students, a careful previewing process, and an in-class discussion about the film's depiction of Ginsberg, "HOWL" will help you and your students get a sense of the Beats and what it was that made their starvation, hysteria, and nakedness matter.

Christy Delehanty is a Poetry Center intern and a UA undergraduate majoring in creative writing, English and linguistics. She is also English and Creative Writing Club president.

Created on: 
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents