The challenge of transforming a poem into a feature-length film is so daunting, if noble, that Oscar-winning writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman may be forgiven if a few of the stylistic balls they juggle in the attempt crash spectacularly to Earth.
Here are the parts of Howl  that work: Against all odds, James Franco is thoroughly convincing as a young Allen Ginsberg. In one of the movie’s strands, he re-creates the legendary debut reading of the four-part work at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955. These scenes are shot in black and white and build in power as the picture progresses. The actor does an uncanny job of nailing Ginsberg’s intonations and mannerisms. More important, his reading does the poem justice.
These sequences are intercut with a highly entertaining reenactment, in color, of the 1957 obscenity trial of poet-publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers). For publishing Howl, he faced the possibility of serious jail time. Meanwhile, back in New York City, the controversial work’s creator grew more famous by the day, thanks to all the brouhaha. The dialogue in the courtroom scenes plays as well as if it had been written for the screen, yet it comes word for word from official transcripts.
“Mad Men”’s Jon Hamm is smooth as ACLU attorney Jake Ehrlich. David Strathairn is hilarious in the role of scowling, sputtering prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, out to prove the book possesses no artistic merit. The star witnesses are the real fun, though, especially Jeff Daniels as a smarmy English professor and Treat Williams playing the literary critic Mark Schorer — who, when asked to interpret a passage, patiently explains to the PA, “Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it’s poetry.”
Interwoven with scenes of the reading and the trial, also in color, is an extensive “interview” with Ginsberg, who expounds on various subjects, shedding light on his evolution as a human being and an artist. Here, too, every word is taken from record.
Much of it is fascinating. Ginsberg talks about how he felt complete freedom writing Howl because he believed he’d never publish it. He didn’t want his father (who also wrote poetry) to discover he was homosexual. He discusses his own stint in a psychiatric facility. More unsettling, by far, is the revelation that his mother was “in and out of mad houses” all his young life; at the age of 21, Ginsberg was forced to sign papers authorizing a lobotomy. His mother died in an institution.
The filmmakers use black and white for flashbacks to Ginsberg’s pre-Beat, pre-coming-out period, during which he nursed crushes on hunky icons-to-be Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). Cassady returned the young poet’s affection — at least until his wife walked in on the pair. All in all, not a side of the wild man later immortalized as On The Road’s Dean Moriarty that’s made it into his legend. I don’t recall the word “henpecked” ever being used to describe Cassady.
Parts of the film that don’t work are Eric Drooker’s goofy, intrusive animated sequences. Intended to illustrate sections of the poem, they instead prove simplemindedly literal and distracting. It would seem that you can’t translate poetry into cartoons, either.
Fortunately, the work of art at the film’s center is such a brilliant, powerful, soulful and moving creation — and Franco’s channeling of its creator so inspired — that Howl succeeds despite this misstep. A fun fact: In reality, five poets gave readings that fateful night at Six Gallery. Ginsberg, never suspecting he was making literary history, was fourth, leaving poor Gary Snyder to wind things up.
Talk about a tough act to follow.