Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek
Byline: Jennie Yabroff
When is a biopic not just a biopic? When, like 'Howl,' it's got poetry in its soul.
The movie opens in black and white with a bespectacled poet adjusting his glasses and preparing to read. In the audience, college kids drink wine from glass jugs and blow cigarette smoke dramatically skyward. The poet begins. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." It's Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), the poem is Howl, and this is the point at which a traditional biopic would flash back to Ginsberg's childhood, then proceed forward in a dutiful, linear manner, detailing all the events that led the man to create the work. Instead, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman make the -convention-defying, refreshing choice to focus on Ginsberg's art, not his biography. We get little of his childhood, a smidgen of his personal relationships, and nothing of the 40-odd years he lived after Howl made him famous. By devoting their movie to Ginsberg's poem (and the obscenity trial it engendered), the filmmakers avoid all the pitfalls of so many formulaic biopics and create a response to a work of art that is art itself.
In 1955, a gay, Jewish, self-doubting 29-year-old wrote a raw, ragged, personal ode to bohemia, homosexuality, interracial sex, drugs, and the American landscape, dedicating it to a boy he had met during a stay in a mental institution. As a piece of writing, Howl is arrestingly visual, but its de-tractors found the meaning behind the often rude images difficult to parse: according to the prosecutor in the obscenity trial, the poem could have literary value only if the words were metaphors, but he couldn't figure out what they symbolized, beyond their obvious sexual content.
The film Howl is structured in three parts: a reenactment of the trial (the weakest aspect of the film, due in large part to the distracting star quality of Jon Hamm as the defense attorney), scenes of Ginsberg talking to a reporter (which sketch out his basic biography), and the poem itself. …