Tuesday 15 November 2011

Howl (2010)

HOWL is an American biopic / courtroom drama that was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and released by the independent Werc Werk Works company in January 2010.  It stars James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams.  Part dramatisation of Allen Ginsberg's ground-breaking poem, part dramatisation of the obscenity trial which followed the poem's publication and part biopic of Ginsberg himself, HOWL is that rare thing in cinema: a film about the process of writing.

Writing is self-evidently an uncinematic endeavour and consequently films have tended to steer clear of attempting to depict it.  It's not so much that films are anti-intellectual: there have been numerous biopics of painters, composers, musicians and even dancers.  I think it's more to do with the fact that writing is perceived to be a solitary, silent and private pursuit that produces an end result which is consumed in a similar fashion.  However, poetry - for the most part - is intended to be heard and this is particularly true of Allen Ginsberg's work.

HOWL works because as well as exploring who Ginsberg was and how that led to the writing of the poem, it contains a performance of the poem itself.  And not only does the film show Franco as Ginsberg reciting the poem at the Six Gallery in 1955 but it also uses music and animation to visualise the text.  In effect, the film-makers have recognised that the act of writing - the literal act of putting pen to paper, finger to typewriter - is, unlike painting or dancing, merely a mechanical process and that what is of real interest is what is being written and how it came to be written.

The court-room stuff, which dramatises the 1957 obscenity trial of Laurence Ferlinghetti for publishing 'Howl and other poems', is less essential in my view but I suppose what it does is provide a social and cultural context to the poem.  I think the problem with those sections is that they settle for a rather obvious Us and Them / Squares vs Hipsters / Good vs Evil opposition; clipped, straight-laced David Strathairn is the prosecutor and beefy, heroic Jon Hamm (from TV's MAD MEN) is the defence attorney.  The witnesses who think Howl has cultural merit are groovy liberals and those who think it obscene are straight-laced reactionaries.  I'm sorry to say I don't know enough about the US in the late '50s, or the trial itself, to know for sure but I'd like to think it wasn't as binary as that.  Nevertheless, I can only assume that the dialogue from these sequences is taken from transcripts of the trial and therefore it is possible to say that cultural and social freedoms were being fought for by some very brave people.

Jon Hamm (L) and David Strathairn (R) await the judge's ruling
Central to Ginsberg's identity and therefore to his poetry are his homosexuality and his mental health problems. The film understands that it was not Ginsberg's homosexuality which caused his mental health problems but his fear of facing the difficulties society's reaction to his homosexuality would cause.  Ginsberg's friendships with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other members of the Beat Generation, with their broad-minded attitudes to love and life and their embracing of fluid sexuality, were crucial to his personal and professional development and in many ways these are the most interesting parts of the film.  It's perhaps surprising that given the enormity of their influence on post-war US (and therefore international) culture that the Beat Generation has rarely, to my knowledge, been represented in film.  Which I suppose brings me back to my opening point.

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg
I would hate to give the impression that HOWL is dry, absurdly literary, inaccessible or otherwise a chore.  It's not a film that follows the classical narrative model, that's true, so it may disappoint those looking for a straight, if you'll pardon the pun, Ginsberg biopic.  But if you love books, ideas, images and indeed love, then there is a lot to enjoy.  The final few minutes - the recitation of the Footnote to Howl - are incredibly powerful and uplifting and about as far from being obscene as it's possible to be.  Franco is a talented young man and he does a good job of mapping out Ginsberg's interests and obsessions; he's also very good at performing the poem and, when you get right down to it, that's what this film is all about.


  1. Excellent stuff CK. I really enjoyed this film on many levels - as an examination of the poem (with which I confess I'm all too unfamiliar), as a dramatisation of history and simply as a film

  2. Thanks Marshy. I enjoyed it very much too and, as you say, it works on more than one level. It certainly prompted me to dig out my American poetry books which hadn't seen daylight since my undergraduate days.