Having had its two stars, James Franco and Jon Hamm, compare the events surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial related to his poem of the same name of the film to the Proposition 8 battle in California, Howl arrives on the scene with a great deal of cache for the indie audience.
Neil Miller at Film School Rejects kicks off his review with what appears the central debate surrounding the film:
The interpretation of art is tricky. In fact, most great works of art are the trickiest because what makes them great is that they can mean different things to different people. This is something I’ve known, but was reinforced by Rob Epstein’s excellent film Howl, which is a commentary on interpretation set against the obscenity trial that catapulted Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem into the national spotlight. This is also something I realized in the peer conversations that followed my viewing of the film — if taken one way, Howl is a great film. If interpreted another, it loses all of its impact.
He goes on to argue that the film can be read either as an interpretation of the art itself or a meditation on interpretations of art. He also expresses great admiration for James Franco’s central performance, something echoed by MTV. Though this wasn’t something completely shared by Cinematical’s Kevin Kelly, who said that Franco “does a decent job in the role when he’s imitating Ginsberg via recordings, but veers off-track in fictionalized moments”.
Kelly also struggles to find as much enthusiasm as that expressed by Miller, arguing:
Interviews discussing the impact of HOWL, photos, recordings (a vintage recording of Ginsberg reading HOWL aloud was actually discovered in 2007), and more of a background would have been more interesting to watch than this unfortunately clumsy approach to adapting one of the quintessential American poems to film.
It’s scepticism is echoed by indieWire’s Eric Kohn, though he is perhaps even less kind:
Although Howl technically didn’t provide Sundance with its opening night film—it was one of two competition films screened on opening night—it reeks of the stigma associated with the aforementioned slot: Poorly executed, socially relevant counterculture fetishization executed with a few familiar faces. Ginsberg says he reached ‘complete control’ with his composition of Howl, but the movie version apparently has none.
At the moment, Howl looks like it could face a rocky road which may have to be driven by the buzz which seems to surround Franco’s performance. He’s getting praise, but the film itself is getting something of a muted response, with many noting that the two directors had originally envisioned the film as a documentary and have possibly become a little confused in their aims.