Howl = Crap

Monday October 25th 2010

After seeing Bright Star at last year’s LFF, I concluded that the world’s most boring poetry movie had now been made. It turns out I was wrong, as I discovered when I went to see Howl the other week. It’s a sort-of-biopic of Allen Ginsberg, focused mainly on the creation, performance and consequences of his influential 1955 poem Howl.

Because the poem is in four parts and this is an arty indie movie where CONVENTIONAL NARRATIVES ARE BAD, the film is also divided into four sections. Each of them is bad, but for different reasons. Here are the reasons:

The Retrospective Interview
It’s the oldest trick in the book and one of the few times when the film decides it wants to be a proper biopic. The problem is, if you spend 75% of your time subverting biopic conventions, it’s weird to then adhere to them so strictly the rest of the time. All the clichés are present and correct, from the offscreen interviewer speaking in hushed, muffled tones, to the interviewee chain smoking throughout, to the endless shots of a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
The Performance
Here we get a flashback to the famous Six Gallery reading, where Ginsberg first performed Howl. It’s happening in The Past so obviously it’s in black and white. Everything in the past was black and white. I wouldn’t be surprised if the promise of these scenes is what got Franco on board, given that he gets to spend a lot of time reading an iconic poem with very little interruption. It’s a classic before he’s even opened his mouth, so what could possibly go wrong?

The Court Case
These scenes, documenting the 1957 obscenity trial brought against a bookstore owner who published the poem, are the only scenes in the film which do not feature Franco at all.
How very daring indeed. Instead, we get a parade of actors (Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels, etc.) totally phoning it in as they portray either the BIG BAD VILLAINS who want to censor everything and make a law against fun or the FEARLESS SAINTLY ANGELS who are fighting to keep the poem in print.
The Animation
Last and most definitely least is the animated portion of the movie. Illustrating much of Franco’s reading but also peppered elsewhere throughout the film, this fucking awful sub-Vimeo bullshit makes the whole movie look like it must have been made for about 10 pence (even if it had been, that’s no excuse). Sometimes the animations are painfully literal, sometimes they’re self-consciously abstract, but they’re always terrible and always further proof that Howl is one of the most artless art movies ever made.