Like many unsuspecting film viewers, I incorrectly assumed that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010) would be a biopic. However, this film is not strictly about Beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg, but is rather concerned with narrating and exploring the poem itself – a cinematic approach that has spawned a relatively innovative genre that Epstein and Friedman refer to as “a poem pic.” Given that poetry is a highly visual form of writing, which often relies on the evocation of imagery to communicate meaning, the relationship between cinema and poetry is certainly fruitful grounds for discovery.
We didn’t think of it as a translation, we thought of it as an adaptation, the way you would adapt a novel. And that’s just one part of it, the animation. The poem lives in several different ways in the film. It lives as performance art, because it was the first spoken word performance art, as the first poetry slam, and it exists as evidence in the court room when people are trying to understand it. So we felt that we were presenting it in enough different ways that the audience would be able to understand it in the way that was most comfortable for them.
– Jeffrey Friedman
Documenting the genesis of Howl and Other Poems, its influential first performance at the Six Gallery reading in 1955, the notorious obscenity trial that it instigated in 1957 and fragments of Ginsberg’s life, Howl possesses the fractured, dissonant rhythm that largely defined the diverse genres involved in the counterculture movement of the Beat generation. The film is presented through different visual registers that juxtapose recreated interviews with Ginsberg (James Franco), scenes from the trial that present dialogue that is taken directly from the court transcripts, black and white scenes that imagine Ginsberg’s personal life and animated sequences that enact the lines of his famous poem. Collectively, the editing and structure take on a form that is reminiscent of free association poetry and jazz, shifting between different temporalities and spaces.
The interview scenes possess a documentary feel that is complemented by the insertion of newspaper clippings, providing the film with a factual tone. And it is the slippage between documentary-style factuality, fiction and poetry that gives Howl its resonance. The manner in which Epstein and Friedman have interwoven poetry into the structure of the film is admirable. For, more than anything, Howl demonstrates the possibilities of experimentation within the film medium. However, this innovation is also at the crux of what I found problematic about the film.
I know that a number of people will disagree with me, but I think Howl is somewhat of a hollow shell. Although the technical quirks and stylistic mannerisms of the film are brilliant, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of style over substance. The animated sequences in particular don’t particularly work and often appear as an unnecessary distraction from the power of Ginsberg’s words. I was left with the overall sentiment that while the film is good, it could have been much better. Notably, there is a line in one of the trial scenes in which a witness claims that, “You can’t translate a poem into prose.” Howl proves that you can translate a poem into cinema, but you may lose something along the way.