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Given the subjectivity of art, the internal dialogue that only exists within an artist's head and how boring it is to watch somebody paint a picture, carve a block of marble into a statue or make a film, it's no surprise that movies about artists are hard to pull off. Encased within that truth is another: Movies about working writers are double, super-duper, rhinestone-encrusted hard to pull off. Though guys like Hemingway and Jack Kerouac have sold the world on the idea that the life of a writer is all about swashbuckling adventure and derring-do, the truth of the matter is this: for the most part, being a professional scribbler is about sitting alone in a quiet place for an extended time, shunning the company of others in order to talk to yourself. Doesn't that sound glamorous?
Whereas a flick like "Pollock" can at least show the act of putting paint to canvas and "Amadeus" can show Mozart in the throes of musical ecstasy, there are only so many interesting ways you can show a man sitting at a typewriter, pecking out words.
Given that, I consider it safe to say without even researching the topic that the number of movies (much less successful movies) about novelists and poets can be counted on both your hands, with fingers to spare. Add to that number the interesting new film, "Howl," about the writer Allen Ginsberg.
Though it struck me as a sort of lazy bit of cinema whose material might have been served better with a solid documentary instead of dramatization, it's still a lot of fun for lovers of poetry and Ginsberg's jazz-infused verse.
"Howl" jumps around a bit in time, but it focuses mainly on the 1957 obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Books in San Francisco, who first published Ginsberg's sexually, racially and chemically-charged long-form poem, "Howl." Though Ginsberg (played with a good bit of expertise by James Franco, who I had honestly never seen as much of an actor until now), is not present at the trial in the film, the tense courtroom sparring over the meaning of art and the necessity to move the cultural ball forward in verse is interesting, especially in the hands of two of the best actors working right now: Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, and David Strathairn as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh.
The rest of the film is built around the core of the trial, with Ginsberg reflecting on the meaning of "Howl," flashing back and forth in time while giving a sit-down interview with an unseen reporter. These scenes are further juxtaposed by the poem's first, hot-off-the-typewriter reading in a seedy beatnik coffeehouse, the words often illustrated in a whirl of colorful animation.
Though the ensemble cast does some great work here (including brief cameos by Jeff Bridges and Mary-Louise Parker as English department stuffed-shirts who discount the cultural worth of Ginsberg's masterpiece), and the animated segments set to the rhythms of the poem are beautifully done, I couldn't help but think that I was watching a film that didn't really need to exist.
Franco does a fine job capturing Ginsberg's passion and humor, and may well land some award nominations for his portrayal. But for the most part, he's either delivering lines from the poem or recreating a 1950s interview with Ginsberg word for word. Even the trial portions of the film are no doubt based on transcripts. Given that, I couldn't help but think that I'd rather be watching videos of interviews with the actual poet. Why watch a copy of a great artist — even a copy created by a fine actor — when you can hear from the man himself? Instead, we get a film about artistic passion that winds up feeling strangely distant.
Even so, films about writers are rare enough that when one comes down the pike, you should probably jump on it if you're a bookworm like me. Too, the animated portions of "Howl" — in which muted, street-faded colors arch, skip and dance across the screen in response to Ginsberg's gritty words — are almost worth the price of a ticket in themselves. If only the filmmakers had put more energy into giving us what made Ginsberg tick instead of what he said once a reporter's tape recorder started rolling, we might be talking about an entirely different movie, and you might be reading an entirely different review.