Howl surprised me in ways. It is unlike nearly all writer movies out there, because it is so focused on the actual work. The poem, and not Ginsberg's life, is truly at the heart of the movie. It is focused and tight. We don't get broad strokes of a life that span many, many years. Instead, the film captures the poem, Ginsberg's experience writing it, and the trial that almost ban it. This close examination makes a huge difference.
James Franco may, at first, seem like an odd choice to play Ginsberg, but he does it so well. He melts into the young poet and holds the movie together. A good portion of Franco's screen time is talking to an interviewer who is never completely shown. If Franco was less of an actor, these scenes could be difficult to get through. Instead, they are interesting and compelling, especially from a poet's point of view.
As I watched Franco, as Ginsberg, discuss the rawness and honesty of poetry, I found myself drawn once again to Ginsberg. He was one of the first poets I read as a young man (as he is for many budding gay boys). I've always enjoyed his work, but once I discovered Frank O'Hara, I sort of sided with the New York School and never focused as much on the Beats. Of course, I randomly came back to Ginsberg, read him, loved him, and even taught him to my students a few times at FSU.
Watching the film, I realized how similar my approach to poetry is to Ginsberg's. My poems often shock, offend, and surprise people. I've been questioned about my word choices many times and about my subject matter. For me, poetry is about frankness and getting at something real. I'm often writing the very things I fear I shouldn't be writing, which is how I know I'm doing it right. I want to capture this moment in my life and this moment in history as a gay man. Ginsberg was doing just that.
What I loved about the movie was how much it honored the work and honored Ginsberg's approach to writing. In many ways, the film was like a "fictionalized" documentary. It was structured more in that way than in a traditional narrative.
Rarely does Hollywood approach literature or writers with this much respect, which is why I'm sure many didn't like the movie or weren't blown away by it. It wasn't overly sensational or dramatic. It was real. This is a movie for poets and literary types. That doesn't mean it was perfect, but the attempt was honest. A chunk of the movie is an animation of the poem, which I personally enjoyed at times, but felt unsure about in other places. I might need more time and more viewings to decide.
Overall, I was pleased to see a movie devoted to a poem. What a crazy idea. I won't hold my breath for the next one.