My Review of “Howl”
I caught the 6:15 screening tonight of the new James Franco docudrama about Allen Ginsberg, the writing of Howl, and the obscenity trial that followed. It’s showing at the Bell Lightbox, which is the palatial cinema complex that’s the new home to the Toronto International Film Festival. I originally discussed this film here, well before it came to Toronto, so needless to say I was excited to finally see it.
I recommend the film. It’s basically a documentary with actors, taking all its dialogue direct from a number of recorded sources, including Ginsberg’s original reading of the poem at San Francisco’s Gallery Six, the transcript of the obscenity trial of California v. Ferlinghetti, and an audio interview between Ginsberg and an unnamed New York journalist. It’s made by a couple documentarians (the team behind “The Times of Harvey Milk”) and the film maintains some of the looping non-narrative energy of actual reality. It also has an eerily successful characterization of Ginsberg by James Franco. The voice is note-perfect and the mannerisms are both accurate and tied to the mental world of the character. They don’t seem like things the actor is doing because he saw the subject do them first. Franco is a writer too, apparently, and one of my favourite young actors. I’m looking forward to him getting over the small matter of his youthful good looks to establish himself in his proper role as America’s answer to Stephen Fry.
Enjambed somewhat awkwardly with all this successful realism is the film’s more controversial element, an animated interpretation of the poem that hits a lot of very literal notes in the text (the “Moloch” of Ginsberg’s imagination, for example, is an actual fire-breathing moloch). This part is to Howl what Ralph Bakshi’s 90-minute cartoon version of The Lord of the Rings is to Tolkein: loving but flat, elementary, and lacking in nuance. It does, however, inject some colour and energy to what is otherwise a very low-gear film.
The film’s most interesting sub-narrative, however, endures the filmmakers’ disinterest (or ignorance) in its possibilities as a subject. Franco’s characterization oscillates wildly between what I will call the “Two Allens”. One is Ginsberg as hippie figurehead, spouting his desire to speak “honestly” and “from this soul” with all the usual platitudes that the confessional tradition has placed on contemporary poetry, like a 4,000 pound barbell made of puppy kisses. The other Ginsberg is more recognizably a poet, and less a prophet. I say this knowing that Ginsberg is part of that Blake & Whitman family of mystical seers, but it’s perhaps best to look at those poems, and not the poets, as the visionaries. To this end, there’s a short scene in the middle of the picture where Franco talks of a prelinguistic groan, which arrives at his lips wrapped in the package of a specific rhythm (this rhythm quite brilliantly becomes the prime motif Carter Burwell’s minimalist score). In the ensuing monologue, Franco/Ginsberg repeats the pattern of the rhythm against the roof of his mouth a couple times, and begins to fill in the blanks with syllables. This was a surprising take on Ginsberg’s process, coming as it does after a scene extolling the bluntness and honesty of his first post-Columbia attempts, with things like cadence and rhythm far from the film’s mind. The product of all this is the line from Howl, section 2, that begins “Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows”. It’s such an earnest, obsessive speech that it made a couple of audience members giggle, but it struck me as the most accurate moment in the film. Ginsberg as hard-working craftsman, not Ginsberg as mystic cultural superman.
This is where my personal narrative of the Two Ginsbergs bumped up against the images appearing on-screen. The courtroom section was occasionally dull, populated by cameos from actors clearly arriving on set during their lunch breaks from their other projects (John Hamm, who didn’t even have to change his suit, Mary-Louise Parker, David Straitharn, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Daniels). It’s good history though, clean and accurate and relatively free of pandering. The court case focused on the words Ginsberg chose to use, specifically these words: fuck, cock, balls, snatch, cunt, and few others. These words gone over with a fine tooth comb, and juxtaposed with some Gallery Six scenes that show young bespeckled types hooting and hollering over their every utterance from the shy young man blending them seamlessly into his new poem.
The thing about censorship, maybe, is that it doesn’t have to win to win. To wit, the obscenity trial took my craftsman Ginsberg, possessor of one of the keenest rhythmic ears in all of 20th century poetry, and reduced him to a man who could or could not say cunt, who could or could not speak frankly of homosexual attraction in his poems. This reduced Ginsberg sounded a lot like the man who spoke of poetry as simply an “outlet” for self-expression, the Ginsberg that allowed himself to be a visual punchline of the 60s counterculture, that tripped over every didactic opportunity offered by the next 40 years of American literature. It’s also the Ginsberg that the young people were encouraging obscenities from at Gallery Six. Hipsterism, it turns out, is a form of censorship. Both reduce their targets to simple verb-noun marriages, and ship that simplification off to Life magazine to be judged by the public: Allen Ginsberg, swearing poet. Are you with this or aren’t you?
I don’t think a poem like Please Master, with its abandon of Howl’s opulent jazz orchestration for flat and jokey unpoetry that plagued Ginsberg’s later career, ever occurs to the poet if he wasn’t simultaneously heralded and castigated for the vocabulary of Howl in 1957. Please Master is Howl stripped for parts. It has the vocabulary of his earlier poem, the very thing that his censors stole from the heart of his work and made stand trial, but none of its whimsical music. In other words, it is the poem that the State of California heard when it first misread Howl. That misreading, spoken on a national scale, consumed and eventually assimilated the poet.
Howl, the movie, doesn’t dwell on this, of course. It ends on a high note and fades out to a credit sequence featuring an old (real-life) Ginsberg singing one of his songs. Such are films, I suppose. Maybe this is why there aren’t many movies about poems.