Hmm...people had a hard time understanding my poetry...how will they understand this film?
To be perfectly honest, I went into Howl at a distinct disadvantage: I've never connected much with the Beat Generation, and I find a lot of poetry just plain bewildering. Put it to music or use imagery that I understand and I'm good, but meditate on "peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns", as Allen Ginsberg does in his infamous poem, "Howl", and I'm lost.
Call me culturally illiterate, but I'm afraid that while I understand the social significance of the poem in its time (both as a cathartic statement and as a legal precedent), it just has no emotional resonance for me at all. Should this have affected my viewing of Howl? Probably, but since much of the film is animated I didn't have to do much heavy lifting anyway. The metaphors and raw passion were brought to life for me, so all I had to do was try and understand, which I did with infrequent success.
In theory I love the idea of bringing poetry to cinematic life for the very reasons I've mentioned: it helps me make some sense of the underlying meaning. But "Howl", with its huge cultural and historic significance, may not have been the best poem to explore in this way. The entire film should have been animated, or the entire film should have been a legal drama about obscenity and censorship in the 1950's, or the entire film should have been a biopic of Ginsberg (heck, maybe it just should have been a documentary).
Instead, Howl is all three, and suffers because of it (even if I admire the fact that none of the dialogue was scripted). I was tossed around from the courtroom to a living room to a coffeehouse to an animated nightmare. It was disorienting and, apart from James Franco's committed performance, it made disappointingly little use of a terrific cast featuring Jeff Daniels, Jon Hamm, and David Strathairn.
The end of the film is much tidier than the rest of it, and underscores, at least to me, that directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were more interested in telling the story of the poem than exploring the poem in the story, as if the meaning of the lines in "Howl" should be obvious to anyone who reads them (in a Q & A after the screening I attended, the directors talked almost exclusively about the technical aspects of making the film). Well, consider this viewer a little more enlightened about why "Howl" received so much attention, but still pretty much in the dark about what half of it actually means.