The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Film Reviews

The Joy Of Text: Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' Comes To The Big Screen
Wyndham Wallace , July 21st, 2010 05:58

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s latest film recounts the story of a poem that changed America. Wyndham Wallace reads between the lines.

It's hardly an easy sell: take Allen Ginsberg's hallucinatory epic poem 'Howl' and turn it into a movie, highlighting the social context of its creation and publication as well as Ginsberg's personal motivation. It sounds like a university thesis - and in some ways Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film is not unlike that - but Howl is much more than an academic portrayal of the birth of American literary counterculture. It's also a provocative and moving attempt to address concepts of freedom of expression constructed in a manner designed to reflect both the poem that inspired it and the debate that pursued it.

Howl sees Epstein and Friedman – who won an Oscar for Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt – weave together three separate strands to tell the story of what 'Howl' is, and what it meant to American ruling classes. Ginsberg – played by James Franco so convincingly that he's unrecognisable from his Daniel Desario character in Freaks & Geeks – is first seen reciting his poem to a small bar backroom and being interviewed by Time magazine in his apartment. He's a sensitive but impassioned man, coming to terms with his homosexuality in an unenlightened world and eager to write something that speaks to and from the heart and mind. Biographical details emerge – his flirtation with Neal Cassady, his guilt about the electroshock therapy and lobotomy that he authorised that preceded his mother's death, the comparable institutional therapy he and friends endured – but this is no biopic.

Then there are the courtroom scenes: following the poem's publication by San Francisco's legendary City Lights Bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, both he (and therefore by extension the poem) were put on trial for obscenity. A curious line up of literary experts and radio personalities were brought before Judge Clayton W. Horn (Bob Balaban) to argue over whether Ginsberg's poetry offered enough significant literary merit to justify its use of words like 'cock', 'snatch', 'asshole' and 'fuck' as well as its depictions of drug use, with Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm doing little but reprising his Don Draper role, if with less sexual allure) defending the publisher. But this is no legal drama, instead presenting deliberately mundane highlights that inevitably dwell on the absurdity of the circumstances.

Amongst all this are animated sequences, intended by Epstein and Friedman to illustrate the frenzied but often abstract imagery throughout 'Howl'. This is a risky technique: as Luther Nichols (Allesandro Nivola), one of the literary critics called to the stand, points out, "you can't translate poetry into prose – that's why it's poetry". The same could be said of images: the directors' efforts to convert Ginsberg's words into pictures may be counterproductive in tying down their audience to a single interpretation. But fortunately the imagery offered is so vivid, and Ginsberg's recitation so breathless, that there's little time to be anything but dazzled as it shifts from film noir pastiche to a sexualised Fantasia. Whether or not the sequences compare to what other readers have imagined is to miss the point: there is no truth, only interpretation.

Together these three approaches combine to reflect Ginsberg's unflinching portrait of life amongst writers, radicals, beatniks and drug addicts. Like the poem, the film is initially disorientating, but cumulatively this refusal to present a standard narrative succeeds in not only dramatising Ginsberg's text – about, for instance, people "who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York, who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls" – but the arguments surrounding its circulation. Howl, after all, arouses indignation at the idea that a poem could be considered so inflammatory whilst simultaneously and contradictorily provoking nostalgia for a time when people actually cared this much about literature. 'Howl' was just free verse, and furthermore prosecutors openly admitted they failed to understand it, yet they pursued its prosecution on the basis that its alleged obscenity could be harmful to the common man, that its depictions of drugs and homosexuality could appeal to people's "prurient interest in sexual conduct".

Howl therefore raises significant questions, but instead of offering pat answers – there are none, after all – it offers complex debate: when do words become offensive? Who has the right to judge or deem themselves our moral guardian? Whose interpretation of words is more valid or indeed definitive? Can words be held responsible for crimes? And can we forgive or at least tolerate those who express themselves in manners that are unfamiliar or perhaps contrary to our own beliefs?

The ambiguity of arguments for and against censorship and suppression remain significant contemporary questions. Howl is clearly, and predictably, a film in favour of liberty, but at the court case's conclusion any sense of victory is matched by the image of an old lady mourning the loss of innocence that the poem represents, even though Ginsberg was of course merely documenting something that was already underway. Nevertheless, it's exciting to see a film that suggests we should be more open to accepting things that we don't understand. In fact, looked at on a global level, this is a film that encourages tolerance and acceptance, whether it be towards verbal, sexual or political inclinations. Instead of kneejerk reactions based upon ignorant assumptions, it implies, we should learn what we can from the many and varied perspectives that individuals have of our world. Freedom of speech risks our hearing things we don't like, but what we don't know doesn't always need to be seen as threatening, and those who think they know what's best for us often – to use the vernacular – don't know shit.

Howl is therefore not easy to explain, but it reflects the poetry of its subject and leaves one wrestling with questions previously buried beneath a mountain of contemporary banality. It's not flash, though those animated sequences are at times extraordinary, and it's not stuffed with powerful performances, though the likes of Franco and Hamm should be commended for letting their lines speak so clearly. But it reminds one of the power of words and taboos. We may think we live in a world that's now beyond shocking, and poetry may scarcely even register with the general public, but the petty-minded, troublemaking squabbling that is characteristic of so much public argument remains: in January the UK saw its first arrest thanks to a Twitter tweet, and it's not long since Janet Jackson's nipple reduced a nation to foaming-mouthed fury. What we see, read and hear is still subject to the approval of others, and it's that thought – and all that it implies – that, combined with Howl's brave innovation, should be enough to leave one at least temporarily speechless at its end.