27 February 2011
When I first read Howl back at university, it filled me with an incredible need to rise up and raise my fist to the Man, defy the establishment, defy the conformity, defy the convention.
I wanted to talk about it in a non-academic environment with people of my age, over a few drinks, in a dingy dive bar …
What can you say? I was a hopeless romantic. An idealist dreaming of a university experience that I only read about in books, where I can meet an Andre Breton. In many ways I still am.
My university life consisted of drinking Red Bull vodkas and going to terrible night clubs, celebrating our youthful energy. I hated it then. I hate it today.
That’s why the first few minutes of Howl brought back an imagined reality that I never lived. I felt like an old man, yearning for a youth I never had - I’m 28.
Does that make me an “angel-headed hipster”? Yes. A snob? Yes. Am I OK with that? I’m writing this review on a MacBook Pro in a Starbucks, so I am quite comfortable in my own skin.
Allen Ginsberg wasn’t. He wanted to express himself to his contemporaries. He was conflicted, living in a society that saw homosexuality as a mental illness. Forcing those that did not adhere to their dimwitted views to lobotomy, permanent physical and psychological damage, and perhaps even suicide (is it any different these days? Write that down in 140 characters). Ginsberg wanted to write Howl, not only to express what he had been through in life in his own way, but also as a self-therapy.
Howl the film looks at the phenomenon of Howl / Allen Ginsberg from three perspectives: the inception, the conception, and the repercussions of the poem.
The inception of the poem is the dramatisation of an actual interview with Ginsberg during the obscenity trials (more of which later). Here James Franco’s Ginsberg carries the look of relief of a man who has finally said what he had to say. He had his reservations, but he is a man more than happy to have finally narrated his life in a way he always dreamt of. With dewy eyes, he reminisces the events that inspired the poem. He sometimes sounds like he is questioning the veracity of the events, but never what they meant to him. James Franco simply excels in these talking-head sequences.
The conception of the poem is not the physical act of putting it into paper, but its presumably first utterance in a smoky, hazy San Francisco bar in 1955. Clean-shaven, two years prior to the interview and the trials, a fresh-faced Ginsberg narrates his poem to eager-faced, ambitious, and downright snobby Beat poets and artists, to Kerouac, Cassady et al.
During the narration / performance, we don’t stay in the room continuously (shot in beautiful black and white), but wander off to a different dimension, where animation takes over. Supposedly based on Ginsberg’s own drawings, this is the make-or-break point for the film. The poem is very visual, angry, in-your-face. It never stops for a moment. Its rage pours out of the pages. Unfortunately the animation falls a little short of that and on occasions it is a little too literal.
But, this is not meant to be conventional. Or ‘proper’. So, even though it is the definite weakest point in the film, it complements the overall picture well. I have to say, however, that its absence would have probably made the film a little tidier.
The repercussions do not involve Ginsberg the person on screen. After the poem goes public, the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is put on trial for obscenity charges. This part of the story is shot and told in the most classical of ways, featuring a great cast: Bob Balaban as the mostly silent judge, David Strathairn as the prosecutor with only one argument, Jon Hamm as the progressive, handsome lawyer out to prove the idiocy of censorship, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels as the socially and artistically conservative witnesses respectively. Daniels’s performance is especially a stand-out (the other side of his gay professor in The Hours). And Alessandro Nivola is the literary critic who points out the fallacy and idiocy of the trial in one brilliant observation: regardless of the poem’s artistic merit, this trial will definitely make it one for the ages.
Here the poem is again the centrepiece, as witnesses are asked repeatedly to recite and comment on the verses. Taking these verses out of context (as most critics tend to do) does no justice to the poem. And Jon Hamm’s final plea to the judge to not deem Howl as obscene or “prurient” makes that point perfectly clear - Ginsberg is a man who expressed himself in the only way he wanted to express himself. Who are we to judge him his expression, or the contents of his expression?
Yes, I am not objective in this review - Howl the poem holds a special place in my heart. So a film about it would either have failed miserably or triumphed gloriously. For me it is the latter. I enjoyed every second of it. I felt nostalgic for a time I never lived and bitter about the age that I was living in. Knowing that there isn’t a café that I can go to, where I can talk to a random stranger about poetry, arts makes me sad. No, I will never have that life. Ever. Thankfully, Howl is always going to be there for me.