Rob Epstien’s film splices the 1957 obscenity trial with cartoon animation of Howl itself, alongside interviews with the poet and an early reading of the poem. In this way the poem is folded over and doubled back on throughout the film, and the audience become involved and implicated in the echoes and effects of its language. The film is about poetry and explores the myriad meanings and allusions any one poem can have. Lines from the poem are often heard once, twice, three times and each time the meaning is different. In the staid, stuffy and prim surroundings of the court room, the lawyer for the prosecution reads out illicit sections of the poem: “Neal Cassidy sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sun rise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake”.
We then hear the same line read again at a poetry reading in monochrome and smokey New York, where an audience of young revolutionaries cheer and whoop. And then again as part of the animation, through melting sunsets and swirling bodies locked in psychedelic embraces. And then we see Ginsberg read it, alone in his room, telling an interviewer about his love for Neal, a love that was never fully returned as Cassidy was struggling to remain straight.
Franco as Ginsberg is sweet and earnest and disarmingly humble. Asked about the Beat Generation he replies, “there’s no Beat Generation, just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” This frank humility is juxtaposed with his equally simple way of looking at poetry, and he tells the tape recorder that he only started writing to impress Jack Kerouac. A lot has been written about how well Franco has adopted Ginsberg’s speaking voice, and it’s true - he masters the warbling New York deepness completely.
The film is suffused with a warm sunny light that lets some sections fall into an overdone nostalgia; it is all a little too dreamy and filmic. The presence of Mad Men’s John Hamm as Lawrence Ferlinghetti's lawyer (for the defence of the publisher) goes no way to reducing this; it is as though Don Draper has walked a block from Madison Avenue and is moonlighting as a lawyer, without even changing his suit! It is the animation that brings the film back to the grotty and depressing reality of what Ginsberg was writing about - the experience of his mother, Carl Solomon and Ginsberg himself in various state-owned mental institutions. The animation has touch of the arcade video game and is similarly apocalyptic, but it allows the film to dwell on the misery and desperate parts of Howl without detracting from its beauty.
This film is worth seeing for so many reasons, but one of the most enjoyable is the trouncing of the trial and the marvellously chosen cast of “experts” who declare the poem meritless trash.