Now I'm one of those who appreciate the odd, stylishly weird art films that come around every now and then. But with Howl, there's just a lingering feeling of "I really don't see the point to this,' that's going over my head as the film babbles on cool sounding bullshit in my ear.
So for those who don't know, back in the 50's, Allen Ginsberg, famous American poet wrote an epic poem called Howl. Now for me personally, I always felt that Ginsberg was probably stoned when he wrote it but apparently it's contents were so awesome it broke ground for new modern literature. See how easily people are pleased with "art" these days. Anyway, the film inter-cuts between 3 stories.
The first is the poem itself which is depicted through animation and Ginsberg reading it to an audience for the first time, the second being Ginsberg himself who we see giving an interview with a faceless reporter and lastly the obscenity trial that tried to ban the publication of Howl and prosecute its publisher. All three aspects run the length of the film and are separated stylistically.
The blend between the three segments were beautifully done and was incredibly ambitious and I really felt the risk paid off. The variety helps when jumping between storylines and periods of time. The animation sequences in this isn't Pixar quality but it does it's job in bringing to life the whirlwind and bohemian underbelly tone of Ginsberg's poem. The one-on-one interview with Ginsberg was played brilliantly by James Franco who is continuing to impress me with every role he takes.
Franco is the star of this movie, his performance of a subdued, young Ginsberg is nothing short of refreshing to watch. I'd compare his performance in Howl to Ben Whishaw in I'm Not There who's just sitting on a coach and rambling off with a whirlwind of words and every now and then, he'll say something profound that blows your mind. I am only slightly disappointed that the courtroom segment took up most of the film when all I really wanted was to know more of Ginsberg's back story, because at times I felt Franco's segment was just a fancy transition scene between the courtroom and the animation.
But I did love the courtroom segment. David Strathairn and Jon Hamm provide a highly comical and exciting court battle, and yes Jon Hamm is essentially playing Don Draper but it does work well. There are cameos within the court scenes by Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels; Parker is fairly forgettable but Daniels’ brief performance is excellent.
All three segments work well and stands alone perfectly even out of the context of the film. Unfortunately, they were made to be intertwined with one another, going back and forth between segments that ultimately leaves the audience underwhelmed in the grand scheme of things.
I blame the pacing of the film. Though stylistically well done, the editing left the segments fragmented and disjointed; not allowing the audience much time to let it all sink in for them. We jump from dark animation with weird narrations to a James Franco speech to a comedy courtroom scene in a matter of minutes each time that it doesn't give you much time to process what you are suppose to be understanding or feeling about the movie. The segments in Howl were great, they just weren't that good together as a whole movie.
I wouldn't recommend Howl to general readers, because it does take that level of interest in art films and an open mind. But I still enjoyed it for the contemporary, smorgasbord mess it is.