A review of the film HowlDirected by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman Running Time: 86 minutes Review By: Jeffrey Grunthaner
The film version of the poem “Howl” aspires to be a kind of social commentary on the original text. Recreating key aspects of the poem through the interweaving of four distinct planes of narrative, the film portrays the life and art of Allen Ginsberg through the lens of the poet’s homosexuality, and his accompanying struggle to find an adequate voice for his feelings. As presented in the film, “Howl” is fundamentally a love poem—a work that uses the language of ordinary conversation not as an aesthetic contrivance, but as a way of communicating intimately with Jack Kerouac, who had seemingly lost interest in Ginsberg’s emotional life. A filmic commentary on an essential text, Howl’s main merit lies in forging new connections about the meaning of the poem; and in this way serves to enhance our understanding of a work long regarded as a classic.
The drama of the film moves through the space mapped out by its structure. Howl is extended into four discrete narratives, creating a structural tension that blends a reading of the poem in San Francisco, an interview conducted with Ginsberg about the poem, a recreation of the trial where the poem stood charged of obscenity, and animated interpretations of the more visionary aspects of the poem. Each narrative goes its own way independently of the others, occupying a separate time and place, and even (in the case of the visionary sequences) a separate reality. Nonetheless, a single texture is created, each narrative having the function of interpreting a single text: the poem “Howl.”
Despite stellar acting on the part of James Franco—whose performance aims for, and achieves, verisimilitude to Ginsberg’s likeness to the greatest possible extent—Howl is not free of all charges of sentimentalism. Generally, the San Francisco scene where Ginsberg rose to prominence is painted as a motley group of mid-century-styled hipsters, with prescient notions of their future greatness. This puts the cart before the horse, as immediate consciousness declares that the self is temporally uncreated, that the dice governing our wills are never loaded, and that history can turn out otherwise than we would have expected. I would have liked to see a more edgy and enigmatic quality to the San Francisco scenes where Ginsberg is reading his poem. Instead, what we get is a smoky atmosphere drawn in gray and white: the 1950’s style of which is too reminiscent, too historically distant to have any immediate effect.
Likewise, the scenes recreating the obscenity trial in which the publisher of “Howl” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights) is silently featured have an ultimately hokey quality about them. This is in part due to the fact that the dialogue of these scenes is a verbatim transcription of the actual words spoken during the trial, and thus partakes of the organized repression characteristic of the McCarthy Era. The narrative plane these scenes relate is generally situated in the film as an exemplar of the kind of world Ginsberg was confronting when he wrote the poem—and they do have their dramatic resonance in context. Ultimately, however, like each of the four narratives composing Howl’s filmic texture, they unwind of themselves; and the finale to the trail scenes—a large declaration of the importance of free speech in America Democracy—comes across as a relic of liberal idealism: something without any real relevance to the world we presently inhabit.
I proffer these criticisms of the film because I believe that “Howl” is a poem with the utmost contemporary relevance, and that any film intending to be an adequate portrayal of it—to “be about the poem” as Anne Waldman told me in conversation at The Living Theater—must have a correspondingly contemporary feel to it. “Howl” is a poem about the sadness specific to American life; it details the frustrated aspirations to individuality that everyone in our nation experiences, given over as it is to a fascistic will to control, and to the policing of our every desire through the panoptic eye of media surveillance. The “underground” quality of “Howl” derives from the fact that it everywhere subverts this state of affairs, proclaiming the reality of individuated desire, while bearing witness to its utter ruin. The film portrayal of “Howl,” however, does not sufficiently capture the eternality of expression conveyed by the poem—except in parts.
Some critics have expressed disappointment with the animated sequences of the film. When I saw the film at the Angelika (which had a post-showing panel discussion featuring Eileen Myles, Mark Doty, and Anne Waldman), I overheard Mark Doty make a similar comment. Contrary to these opinions, however, I believe that the animated sequences of the film are great interpretations of the visionary horror contained in the poem. The passages in “Howl” which begin “Moloch…” are especially apt for animated portrayal. What, after all, is Moloch? It is not capitalism; it is not death, disease, or poverty; still less is it the fantasia of unsatisfied longing. “Moloch,” rather, in the context of the poem, is that from which all these things issue. It is a malefic god who feeds on the hearts of the innocent, reducing them to the status of machines that wander a world bereft of any feeling. The animated sequences of the film duly help to give body to our understanding (read: “experience”) of what “Moloch” means in the poem, forging new connections about its significance, while concretizing the meaning of an idea that ultimately transcends conceptual definition.
Also, the scenes that portray an interview with Allen Ginsberg are exactingly on point. Here, the truthfulness of James Franco’s acting develops in a way which the other dramatic segments of the film leave in the status of a cliché. As the main virtue of Howl lies in how it deepens our understanding of the original poem, Franco’s incarnation of Ginsberg, fleshed out through the gradual give-and-take of a tape-recorded interview, brings us closer to the reality of the personality who wrote “Howl.” Someone who has never seen the film might think that Franco could never authentically portray Allen Ginsberg, but Franco studied his part well; and speaking as someone who never knew Ginsberg personally (he died when I was 16 or so), Franco’s Ginsberg looks and sounds like the genuine article. After the film, Eileen Myles and Anne Waldman—both of whom did know Ginsberg personally—were in agreement that Franco’s portrayal was extraordinarily true-to-life.
Thematically, the locus of the film devolves upon the homosexuality of Ginsberg, and the forms of sexuality expressed in the poem. Apart from the visionary animation of the film (but in these also, to an extent), the running thread of Howl is that Ginsberg was a gay poet who expressed his sexual desires openly and in an argot of utter frankness, using the language of those who had similar desires, and who were consequently excluded from the mainstream of American life. This being so, the film version of “Howl” is a nostalgic kind of social commentary on the state of human sexuality. Whether the film portrays homoerotic desire in a manner that is still relevant today is debatable. Few people in the medical community today consider homosexuality a “neurosis”; and those that do are set against others who don’t—which was not the case in Ginsberg’s time. Thus, homosexual love has a kind of pathetic quality in the film, bolstered by the fact that it is situated within a time when such desire was considered “wrong” (and not only by the Christian right). None of this is to say that homosexuality, as represented in the film, is without pathos.
Anne Waldman told me that Werc Werk Works, the production company behind Howl, is currently working on a film adaption of the life of Hart Crane; and it would seem that Howl is just a practice run for what should certainly develop into a greater film. Unlike the life of Allen Ginsberg, the biography of Hart Crane lacks the clichés that too often mar a genuine enjoyment of a film like Howl. Yet it preserves everything that Howl strives for: to portray in imaginative terms the genesis of an extraordinary poet, someone who revolutionized the written word through the discovery of a mythic idiom rooted in the language of ordinary speech.