Monday, January 17, 2011

Howl - In the Digital Era

Howl is a movie with several built-in challenges, one of which earns it a pass in my book:
In what is now firmly established as the post-literate era, Howl is a movie about a poem. Nothing more, nothing less. Well, I take that back: It is about many more things than just a poem. But, if you boil it down to its essence, it's a movie about a poet and his creation -- about the writing and transmission of a work of poetry. And unlike last year's overrated Bright Star, this one is actually interesting.

Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl originally was meant to be a documentary. But the writer-directors (who also did The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet) decided instead to create an impressionistic movie about a transcendent and transitional moment in popular culture: the writing and publication of Allen Ginsberg's landmark 1956 epic poem, Howl, which begins: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."

While I admired and enjoyed this film, I will also honestly say that it's not an audience movie. It is impressionistic and hallucinatory, dealing with obscure figures out of literary history -- obscure, at least, to anyone who is not a fan of or acquainted with the Beat movement of the 1950s.

At the center of the film is Allen Ginsberg (James Franco, in a daringly mannered performance), a New Jersey-born would-be poet who, having been kicked out of Columbia University, begins hanging out with an artsy crowd that believes in disinhibition, smoking pot and all of the other things that scandalized the so-called straight society in the 1950s (which wasn't that much more sanguine about them when the hippies started doing them in the 1960s).

Ginsberg wants to create something new, something that reflects both his own inner turmoil -- including his personal struggle with homosexuality -- and the underground bohemian society he finds himself drawn to. What he comes up with is Howl, an expressionistic release of anger, disillusion and idealism, written in language that is at once poetic, sexually explicit and ground-breaking.

The poem was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Press in San Francisco -- and part of the film is a black-and-white recreation of Ginsberg declaiming the poem to a crowd gathered at Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore. The filmmakers alternate between the image of Ginsberg reading his poem and animated illustrations of the poem itself, which have an edgy, sometimes too literal quality to them.

The rest of the film is divided between courtroom sequences of the obscenity trial that resulted from Howl's publication and interview sequences with Ginsberg. In playing Ginsberg, Franco is working from a script drawn from actual interviews with Ginsberg about the period. In turn, his discussion of his past - of his struggle with being gay, of his attraction to people like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassidy - are recreated in almost home-movie like simplicity. The result is kaleidoscopic, a swirl of images and impressions of a romantic, mind-expanding period, when great writers were at their most fertile and inventive and possibilities seemed open and endless.

Of course, I say that as someone who grew up reading about the Beats as precursors of the counter-culture of the mid-late 1960s. A film that celebrates this remarkably influential scene and its progenitors is a welcome rescue of a time, place and people that are in danger of being forgotten.

But as noted, it's a film that has a fairly narrow focus. The courtroom sequences (featuring David Strathairn as the prosecutor and Jon Hamm as the defense attorney, examining witnesses such as Jeff Daniels and Mary Louise Parker) are necessarily stagey and, despite being drawn from actual transcripts, seem a little corny -- at least given the opinions about obscenity and the value of Ginsberg's poem expressed by the "squares" of the period.
Howl is a gutsy, inventive film about an important moment. It's not for everyone but should please those who are open to the chances it takes.

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