To conform or not to conform, that is the question. But it’s not the only question raised in Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, and James Franco‘s Howl, a narrative glimpse into the life of Allen Ginsberg. How and why to spend your life as a wandering poet and the conscience of a subculture also enter into it.
Ginsberg’s era now seems so long-ago and far-removed that a frame of reference is necessary for 21st-century audiences with a hazy notion of the Beat Generation and what it all means. Howl skimps a little on that, relying on actor Franco’s incandescent performance to pull the project through. He’s almost good enough to do the job by himself.
As cultural bellwethers from J.D. Salinger to Andy Warhol to Mad Men have demonstrated, America after WWII was the perfect Petri dish for social and artistic discontent — as long as you kept it down to a dull roar. The President of the United States may have been a retired war hero and General Motors ruled the road, but the ports of New York City and San Francisco were where everything happened, the places you needed to be, especially if you were young, skeptical, and high on possibilities of the anti-mercantile variety. So it’s natural that Howl the movie opens with Ginsberg’s (Franco) first reading of his epic poem of the same name, in 1955 at an art gallery in SF. We’re treated to large chunks of the work, fully illustrated.
As befits its name, the poem was a protest against war, greed, hatred, and other sins. The outrage and revulsion, eventually giving way to sublime visionary ecstasy, come tumbling out of Ginsberg’s lament in torrents. The filmmakers take us on a visual voyage deep into the poet’s imagery, showcasing Howl the poem in a remarkable mélange of animation (by artist Eric Drooker, produced at The Monk Studios in Thailand), live-action (cinematography by Ed Lachman), an original music score (Carter Burwell), and needle-drop period tunes (music supervision by Hal Willner). The cherry on top of this beatnik ice-cream sundae is Franco’s impersonation of the poet.
This is the young Ginsberg — years before he wore the Uncle Sam top hat and tried to levitate the Pentagon — the red-diaper baby from New York who went to Columbia University and fell in love with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and other leading lights of what came to be known as the Beats. Then they all headed West en masse. Franco nails that peculiar Ginsberg drone in his voice, the declamatory cadence, as well as the overwhelming need to shtup the universe. The idea is to talk frankly with your muse, and Ginsberg’s muse variously took the form of William Blake, Walt Whitman, the Book of Job, J.S. Bach, Dinah Washington, and the Bhagavad Ghita, amongst a galaxy of others.
Ginsberg’s naughty public words and his homosexuality proved too far out for San Francisco’s finest. He and City Lights Books publisher (and fellow poet) Lawrence Ferlinghetti (played by Andrew Rogers) were busted on obscenity charges and brought to trial, in a courtroom showdown between the America that was and the America that might have been. It’s the dramatic centerpiece of the film, but not necessarily the spiritual/cultural one. David Strathairn and Jeff Daniels are particularly good as, respectively, the prosecutor and the “literary expert” hired to claim that all this talk of Moloch and jazz phraseology and assholes was undermining the American way of life. And of course the cops and the prudes were right, up to a point. The American way of life in 1956 was desperately in need of undermining, for its own good. But how much can poetry change the world, after all? That’s another of Howl‘s unanswered questions.
Actor Franco has fashioned a screen career playing stoners, gays, and the best friend of Spider-Man — he even took a whack at James Dean — but this is his (you’ll excuse the expression) come-out role. His Ginsberg is the tenderest of tenderfeet, tromping the byways of the Bay (Ginsberg wrote Howl in Berkeley) and essentially channeling the poet through the enormity of the poetry itself — with its dreamlike expression of metaphysical burning desire and that wonderful, insinuating, throbbing voice.
Filmmakers Epstein and Friedman, who made the essential documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, obviously see Ginsberg as one of America’s true free spirits, an exemplar of his times. He’s all that and more. The movie merely points us in the right direction, and it’s up to us to follow the trajectory as best we can.
Besides being one of this country’s finest interpreters of characters on film, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a dedicated stage actor. For his movie-directing debut, he chose Jack Goes Boating, Robert Glaudini‘s play originally produced for New York’s LAByrinth Theater Company — the semi-comic, dependably homey story of a lonely Manhattan limo driver (Hoffman) and his similarly dissatisfied friends.
Sheepish Jack hankers for a job upgrade but constantly finds himself thwarted. For him, every step is wrong and every project is awkward. Example: To prove his devotion to 1960s Jamaican reggae, he’s growing dreadlocks. With his thinning red hair, that’s a mistake. His sad-faced would-be girlfriend Connie (Amy Ryan) works at a funeral home, and attracts mishaps the way a dog hosts fleas. Jack’s fellow limo driver Clyde (John Ortiz, former co-director with Hoffman of LAByrinth) and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Connie’s work mate at the mortuary, share a typical strain of the married blahs — she fools around with a guy nicknamed Cannoli and he fumes, usually harmlessly.
You would have to work hard to find a foursome traveling the road to nowhere so diligently. Glaudini’s play, which he adapted for the screen, bears the imprint of many a similar story of folks on the margins nevertheless reaching for the heights. Their glory, such as it is, is in the attempt. All the actors, particularly Ortiz and Rubin-Vega, are first-rate, and if their characters are overly familiar, the intensity and intelligence of their performances are not. Jack Goes Boating, like Jack himself, isn’t about to set the world on fire, but it establishes the filmmaking Hoffman as a lover of the classics and, not surprisingly, as an actors’ director.