Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs are two writers whose names will forever be inextricably linked to one another. Alongside Jack Kerouac, they are credited as the godfathers of the "beat generation," a group of writers who radicalized American literature by tackling subjects that their elders felt improper. Ginsberg kicked off the movement in 1956 when he published Howl and Other Poems, while Burroughs delivered his landmark novel Naked Lunch in 1959. Both depicted gay sex and drug taking and subsequently became the focus of obscenity trials. More than fifty years later, the writers are celebrated in two movies at this month's London Film Festival.
Starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, Howl explores the events which led the poet to write his seminal work and documents the aftermath, including the book's obscenity trial. Through a collage of courtroom scenes, flashbacks and interviews the audience is transported to 1957, the year of the obscenity hearing, and allowed to watch Ginsberg as he battles depression, falls in and out of love and answers criticism of his work. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Festival, Howl has garnered significant acclaim and Franco is tipped by some to receive a nod when the Oscar nominations are revealed.
Howl is a visual feast, encompassing animation, documentary style footage, atmospheric grayscale and vivid color. Flashbacks to Ginsberg's earlier life are shown in black & white while segments of the eponymous poem are represented by sleek animated sequences. Commentary is delivered by Franco as Ginsberg in documentary style interviews while the courtroom scenes are vibrant if understated.
Reading the publicity materials, one could be forgiven for walking into Howl expecting a courtroom drama to rival Inherit the Wind. In truth the trial is subdued and less integral to the movie than one might expect. There are no fiery exchanges or smoking gun revelations. In the role of defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, Mad Men's Jon Hamm spends much of his screen time arguing semantic points and debating linguistic terminology with a procession of sour-faced literary snobs. Light relief comes in the form of perpetually baffled prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, played by David Straithairn as a self-righteous buffoon, almost farcically enraged by the content of Ginsberg's work.
Ginsberg comes across variously as a hopeless romantic, a genius social commentator and an insufferable beard-stroker. As he chain smokes his way through an interview in his apartment he offers profound insights into the American literary scene in the mid-20th century, but he also spends significant screen time doing little more than contemplating his navel.
Interview footage combined with flashbacks offer tantalizing glimpses of Ginsberg's troubled early years. His mother was a mental health patient, repeatedly institutionalized, and at just 21 years of age Ginsberg had to sign permission for her lobotomy operation. Ginsberg himself spent eight months in a mental institution and was only released after he assured doctors that he would cease his homosexual activity.
However, these aspects of Ginsberg's life aren't explored in great detail so while Franco is perfectly convincing as the late poet, his performance lacks emotional depth. In fact, Ginsberg comes over occasionally as somewhat of a bore, particularly during copious scenes in which he recites the poem Howl in a loud, dreary monotone.
The animation is gorgeous and much of the film's humor derives from the colorful illustrations of Ginsberg's verse. But while the film is visually rich, the constant switching between grayscale, color, animation and documentary style footage can be jarring and it feels as though the pudding has perhaps been over-egged. The lack of chronology will divide audiences and at times one longs to spend more time in the courtroom or exploring Ginsberg's back story, rather than listening to more of the poet's slightly self-indulgent interview.
Howl is an ambitious project, far removed from your average biopic - and for that it must be praised. While occasionally frustrating, the narrative structure is at least not formulaic or predictable. Franco and Hamm turn in decent performances and there are some nice cameos from the likes of Jeff Daniels and Mary Louise Parker, but the real star of the show is Ginsberg's poem, given new life by Monk Studios' dazzling animation.
Meanwhile, the real Allen Ginsberg garners significant screen time in William S Burroughs: A Man Within. Pieced together from home movies, talking head interviews, TV clips and brief animations, Yony Leyser's documentary attempts to get under the skin of the legendary writer. Among the rare footage included are several tapes of lifelong pals Ginsberg and Burroughs musing on their respective lives and careers.
Featuring contributions from John Waters, Gus Van Sant and Iggy Pop, the movie comes across more as a love letter to the deceased icon than as a truly probing documentary. What emerges is a sad picture of a lonely man, constantly battling his inner demons and never quite feeling as though he belonged.
Like his friend Hunter S Thompson, William S Burroughs has become a victim of his own larger than life personality, which constantly overshadows his work - and this movie sadly does not serve as an exception to that rule. If you walk into the cinema not knowing a whole lot about Burroughs' work, you'll walk out in much the same way. The film pays scant attention to the author's groundbreaking literature, focusing instead on his love of firearms, his eccentric obsession with weaponry and his decades of substance abuse.
Rather than regretting Burroughs' heroin addiction and the impact it had on him in his later years, several contributors recount his addiction as though it were a hilarious anecdote. "William always shot up first so he didn't get AIDS," laughs poet John Giorno. "I thought that was great! Everyone [else] died!" With friends like these, one is left thinking, it's no wonder Burroughs spent much of his life feeling so unappreciated.
There are brief insights into Burroughs' master works but there seems to be more time devoted to the film adaptation of Naked Lunch than the book itself. Large chunks of the documentary are devoted to over-long segments about Burroughs' passion for 'shotgun art' and his interest in altered mind states - the latter of which, unless you're a believer yourself, is boring and baffling in equal measure. Tales of Ginsberg's drunken antics raise the occasional giggle but by the time you reach a five minute interview with a snake handler who once showed Burroughs a handful of serpents, you feel the barrel is being somewhat scraped.
One wonders who this movie's target audience really is. If you're not already a Burroughs aficionado, this documentary will teach you little about his work and probably not inspire you to seek it out, either. If you are already a Burroughs fan, chances are that you'll have heard it all before.
A version of this article appeared on www.sawfnews.com