As an English major I never “got” modern poetry; T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” was the closest any poem came to meaning something in my life, and that’s only because I visited Italy, viewed the works of Michelangelo, and saw yellow light rising like mist against the walls of rustic homes during nighttime. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was less than meaningless—read like an idiotic teenager’s angst-fueled bemoanings of everything yet nothing in particular. I’m willing to give Ginsberg the benefit of a doubt right until Moloch, but after the big fire-god appears everything falls apart. Fortunately, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman understand my confusion, addressing it head on in their film Howl, a semi-biographical account of a poet, poem, and the debate it raised about literary merit and free speech during the mid-1950’s.
When it comes to biopics I usually prefer trailers—they capture all the good bits of a person’s life, score them to epic music thus making everything “sound” spectacular, gloss over the boring stuff, and are over in about 3 minutes. Howl isn’t your typical biopic, though—its narrative flows in and out of reality, court scenes amalgamated and intertwined with psychedelic animated imaginings of the titular poem’s lines, all spliced with occasional shots of Ginsberg (James Franco) explaining his background and work. Behind this free-floating story comes a spoken word reading of the poem delivered by Franco, providing a truly poetic spine upon which all of the film’s threads hang. It’s not a clean film or one particularly concerned with conveying a well-formed, clear message, but its form matches content; the Beat generation wasn’t traditional or focused—were instead in a state of constant change, pushing boundaries.
But I digress.
Allen Ginsberg was a relatively unknown poet and writer before Lawrence Ferlinghetti published his now famous “Howl” in 1956—a publication which prompted a court case against Ferlinghetti’s house under complaints of obscenity and lack of literary merit. This film is an attempt to synthesize Ginsberg’s lyrics with the controversy they caused—a direct pitting of art against both critic and government. It’s not a film for everyone; if you’ve never closed your eyes and visualized images read to you from a book, or have little patience for wandering narratives, you’re going to leave disappointed. Sure, Jon Hamm holds up his status as our generation’s number one period piece orator, but his role is limited to courtroom scenes which are few and far between. The real meat and potatoes of this flick are its visualizations of the spoken poem and recountings of Ginsberg’s life.
I saw this film in what may be its ideal venue—the rooftop of a liberal arts college in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on a chilly Autumn night. The seats weren’t packed—people murmured occasionally in response to what they saw, or what was going on around them, or nothing at all. It was a poetic experience, much like this movie—difficult to define, somehow transcending words. Although the film’s conceptualization of Ginsberg’s lyrics appears nearly literal, its spoken word soundtrack affords viewers the chance to close their eyes and imagine what they will. The other narrative threads—Ginsberg’s background and the Howl trial—provide more than enough for reflection and discussion on literature’s place in modern society. Epstein and Friedman have produced a truly unique film that tackles territory largely untried in cinema, and though their approach feels a little helter-skelter, it’s more than fitting given the material.