Friday, January 7, 2011

Quick Look: HOWL

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg has been on the periphery of several recent films. He was portrayed in a David Cross cameo for Todd Haynes’s 2007 experimental Bob Dylan pseudo-biopic I’m Not There. He showed up in archival footage and in an animated version with the voice of Hank Azaria in Brett Morgan’s criminally underrated Chicago 10. So, it was only a matter of time before he was the subject of his own film. In Howl, James Franco portrays Ginsberg. He has the glasses, the beard, and the cadences more or less right. Unfortunately, the performance is undercut by the movie itself, which is too jumbled for its own good. Written and directed by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (between them, they have the Oscar-winning 1984 feature Times of Harvey Milk and the acclaimed 1995 Celluloid Closet on their resumes) the plot has Ginsberg speaking to an unseen reporter in New York while an obscenity trial concerning his poem “Howl” unfolds in San Francisco. The trial is populated with a host of wonderful character actors like David Stratharin, Jon Hamm, and Jeff Daniels. In between these two parallel threads are painfully obvious and clumsily inserted animated interpretations of the poem while Franco as Ginsberg recites its lines in voice over. Despite the efforts of everyone involved, scene after scene falls flat. There’s a lot of juggling going on and the potential impact ends up shattered.

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