October 15, 2010

300 Words About: Howl

Hmm...people had a hard time understanding my poetry...how will they understand this film?

To be perfectly honest, I went into Howl at a distinct disadvantage: I've never connected much with the Beat Generation, and I find a lot of poetry just plain bewildering. Put it to music or use imagery that I understand and I'm good, but meditate on "peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns", as Allen Ginsberg does in his infamous poem, "Howl", and I'm lost.

Call me culturally illiterate, but I'm afraid that while I understand the social significance of the poem in its time (both as a cathartic statement and as a legal precedent), it just has no emotional resonance for me at all. Should this have affected my viewing of Howl? Probably, but since much of the film is animated I didn't have to do much heavy lifting anyway. The metaphors and raw passion were brought to life for me, so all I had to do was try and understand, which I did with infrequent success.

In theory I love the idea of bringing poetry to cinematic life for the very reasons I've mentioned: it helps me make some sense of the underlying meaning. But "Howl", with its huge cultural and historic significance, may not have been the best poem to explore in this way. The entire film should have been animated, or the entire film should have been a legal drama about obscenity and censorship in the 1950's, or the entire film should have been a biopic of Ginsberg (heck, maybe it just should have been a documentary).

Instead, Howl is all three, and suffers because of it (even if I admire the fact that none of the dialogue was scripted). I was tossed around from the courtroom to a living room to a coffeehouse to an animated nightmare. It was disorienting and, apart from James Franco's committed performance, it made disappointingly little use of a terrific cast featuring Jeff Daniels, Jon Hamm, and David Strathairn.

The end of the film is much tidier than the rest of it, and underscores, at least to me, that directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were more interested in telling the story of the poem than exploring the poem in the story, as if the meaning of the lines in "Howl" should be obvious to anyone who reads them (in a Q & A after the screening I attended, the directors talked almost exclusively about the technical aspects of making the film). Well, consider this viewer a little more enlightened about why "Howl" received so much attention, but still pretty much in the dark about what half of it actually means.


  1. Were any of the scenes set inside or outside City Lights bookstore in San Francisco? I'd be interested in the locations, and I'd be interested as an English teacher, but I'm more a Kerouac fan than a Ginsberg fan - though I am a James Franco fan. Almost saw it last night; I will perhaps check it out. As you write here, it seems an odd choice for a topic.

  2. Hi Hokahey - long time no see (literally, as Howl is one of maybe two movies I've seen in the last month; I'm sure you've been doing some great writing in the meantime as well).

    Actually a good number of the scenes were set inside the bookstore during Ginsberg's original reading of the poem, which was met with many hoots and cheers. I think as an English teacher, a Franco fan, and someone interested in language in general, you'll probably find more to appreciate about it than the average person. The artistry you might take or leave (it's very well done on a technical level), but how you will view the film as a whole I couldn't predict. Hope to check it out if you review it!

  3. I saw this at the New York GLTFF months ago, and while I though it was passable, I have since come to realize that it is even less than that. I have read much of the beat generation poets, and like Ginsberg, but this was a surface often superficial look at a far more complex figure and a far more intricate relationship. I think you saw through the inadequacies here and have expressed them quite persuasively.

    I am an English teacher, but not much of a Franco fan, though he was better here than i expected.

  4. The difficulty Hokahey I've had in posting at your place is that I DO NOT have a google account (whenever I tried to sign up they keep saying that e mail account is already spoken for. It is very frustrating, and I've re-tried many times) I know there is a way to relax the restrictions, but you may be happy with them the way they are. I will keep looking for a way, my friend.

  5. Sam, Franco is a pretty interesting actor and I appreciate that he challenges himself between/within genres. Seems kind of kooky at times but when he dials in I think he does well. I'm looking forward to 127 Hours and have heard his performance is award-worthy. We'll see.

  6. Daniel - I will take your advice and check it out. And thanks for the faith in my writing! I appreciate it.

    Sam - Hope you're reading this. Thanks for trying! I'll lift the comment moderation for a while. Now's your chance!


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