Saturday, October 02, 2010

Howl for Allen Ginsberg

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night..."

Those are the opening words in one of the most famous poems in American contemporary literature. That poem is Howl, by poet of the Beat Generation Allen Ginsberg. Along with William Burrough's Naked Lunch and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Howl completes the trio of the most famous works produced by a group of writers, poets, and madmen who struggled against the oppressive conformity of the post-war Eisenhower era of American life.

Now this poem and the obscenity trial that secured its place in the history of important literature has arrived on the big screen in an actual movie. If I remember correctly, Naked Lunch was adapted into a movie by director of the strange, David Lynch, in the late 80s or early 90s. A few weeks ago, I learned that On the Road is supposedly in the casting phase and will be released in theaters next year (I've heard this quite a few times in the past decade, so I'm still skeptical about that). For now, though, Howl is the first of two films about the Beat Generation that will appear on the big screen. The other film covers the Beat legend about a murder of a pedophile Scout leader in which a young Jack Kerouac was charged as an accessory to murder (for conspiring to get rid of the knife that killed the man).

On October 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg recited his poem in front of a small audience, with Kerouac in attendance, as well as other members of the Beat Generation, such as poet Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, and Kenneth Rexroth. City Lights Books published a collection of Ginsberg's poems into a small paperback "pocketbook" in the fall of 1956. Some people found it obscene and tried to ban it. A famous censorship trial took place to determine if this work was purposefully obscene or was it a work of literature?

Since I've "discovered" the Beat Generation in 2001 and wanted to read as much as I could about it in the decade since, I have also found and watched perhaps more than a half dozen "docu-dramas" about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. While interesting, it left me wanting more...such as an actual movie, thus why I was excited about seeing this one. There have been previous movies about the Beat Generation, but all of them were pretty dull. Howl is high profile, with a cast that includes James Franco as the legendary poet Ginsberg, Jon "Don Draper" Hamm as the defense lawyer, and David Strathairn as the prosecuting attorney.

The movie is made up of four core scenes, intercut in a way to hold our attention when one format might bore the audience if it goes on too long.

Scene One is a black and white of James Franco as Allen Ginsberg reading his poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco's Fillmore neighbourhood to a small gathering of people.

Scene two is the courtroom scene where the lawyers take turns questioning various academic witnesses on their opinions about what constitutes literature and what is considered "obscene." I perked up when the defense lawyer mentioned Voltaire, since I am interested in Voltaire.

Scene three is a lengthy monologue with Ginsberg sitting in his apartment giving an interview to an unseen reporter. In this scene are a few flashbacks showing glimpses of Ginsberg's friendships with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Sadly, though, neither character merits much of a speaking role. Its pretty much a blink and you missed it kind of performance. Make no mistake, this movie is entirely about Allen Ginsberg. In many books that I've read, he's the sidekick to Kerouac and Cassady, but in this movie, they are the silent sidekicks in his drama surrounding Howl. Perhaps Ginsberg is smiling from heaven at this turn of events!

Finally, Scene Four is an animated sequence that brings the entire Howl poem to life. I've read in many reviews about the film that none of the reviewers seem to like the animated sequences and think it brings down the film. However, I LOVED the animated sequences. There is much humour in them and it illustrates the often non-sensical "narrative" of the poem. I would even venture to guess that the reviewers don't get the point. The name of the movie is Howl and its not just about the obscenity trial. If you're going to make a movie about the poem, why not find some way to include the entire thing within the movie? It is a brilliant move. I especially loved the way corporate buildings / factories are symbolized as a giant, iron bull that just consumes people and when you get a peek inside its mouth, you see Satan in the firey pits of hell. Yep. That certainly describes corporate America!

These four scenes are intercut to drive the narrative. At first, it took some getting used to, but by the end of the film, I thought it was the best way a film like this could be accomplished. I'm more of a straight-forward person when it comes to stories and I prefer that kind of flow, rather than jumping back and forth. The main flaw I found in the film, however, was that it relied too much on the monologue sequence, where Ginsberg tells a reporter about his life and how he came to write Howl. In any literature class, this would be called "telling" and the point of a story is to SHOW. I would have preferred to see Ginsberg interracting with his friends more. This interview sequence just seemed like the lazy route to getting information across to the audience. Yes, Ginsberg did have lengthy interviews, which we can probably find online, but I wanted to see Ginsberg hanging out with Kerouac and Cassady, arguing, debating, and discussing literature. That would have been far more interesting.


The courtroom scene lacked the kind of powerful tension that a film like A Few Good Men or A Time to Kill possessed in their critical and dramatic courtroom scenes. The audience doesn't really get to experience what's at stake here. In our modern culture, we are constantly bombarded with "shocking images" that most of us have a filter that tunes out the offending song or movie or book. Since the film shows little about what life is like outside of the courtroom in the comfortable conformity of post-war America, it truly is hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Sure, Howl had some sexually provocative lines and innuendos, but so do many rap songs we're bombarded with today. By comparison, a film like Quiz Show, Far From Heaven or A Brilliant Mind really pulls the viewer into the world of the 1950s and 1960s, so one understands much better the shock the characters feel when something outside the norm disrupts their perfect little world.

Howl is a good movie, despite the flaws. James Franco is perfect for the role of Allen Ginsberg, but I wish he was given more than just a monologue and a stand-up performance. Perhaps a fuller picture about the life of Ginsberg will be made someday. This one is about the poem, though, and it was awesome that the filmmakers found a way to illustrate the poem in its entirety for the viewing audience. It would have been disappointing to see a movie about the poem and not know what all the fuss was about. The film, as highly anticipated as it was for me, however, will not be able to overtake Hipsters and Inception as my two favourite films of the year so far. I'm ranking it third on my list, but there's still The Social Network, Fair Game, and Spielberg's Lincoln movie coming out this year that might bump it further on down the list. Would I recommend Howl to people? Well, honestly, I think it would appeal mostly to people who are interested in the Beat Generation (like I am) or American literature. Beyond that, I don't expect it to capture the hearts and minds of the American movie-going public. Maybe that's something to "howl" about.

1 comment:

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Another movie for my list! Clint Eastwood's Hereafter is also on the list.