The poem itself is one of the linchpin works of what became known as The Beat Movement (or The Beat Generation) alongside the likes of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. In this movie, much like in the movie adaptation of Naked Lunch, the filmmakers take something of the essence of the source and attempt to convey it onscreen.
While in David Cronenberg’s version of Burroughs this happens in the form of a surreal flight of nightmare (it could never be called fancy), here Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman take the poem, along with transcripts of interviews with Ginsberg and transcripts of the trial for obscenity against the poem’s publisher, Laurence Ferlinghetti and use that to create something of the story of the poem.
What this serves to do is an interesting thing as it at once makes for a fascinating look at a mid 20th century cultural event (the trial was, in San Francisco at least, front page news and came early in the general post war liberalisation of literature and art) while also rendering it as a kind of footnote to the actual poem – something like a set of academic notes on the original text.
As a big ‘fan’ of the poem this is a conflicting thing. My appreciation of the poem came about on my own terms, without a lot of background knowledge of the source. So, hearing some of my ideas confirmed and others not in the words of the author (delivered by James Franco), is a strange experience, but one that I think has, ultimately, added an extra layer to my appreciation of the poem. Though having art explained too much can serve to render that art somehow redundant.
Thankfully Howl (the movie) treads just on the right side of the line for this.
Away from thematic argument, as a film, Howl is equally interesting. It mixes live action (a dramatised recreation of the trial and an interview with Ginsberg) with animated visions of the poem.
Laced through and around the impressively abstract animation is a dramatised version of the poem’s first reading at The Six Gallery (as documented by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums) rendered in a smoky monochrome that really captures the scene excellently.
Franco is very impressive as (a slightly Hollywood version of) Ginsberg bringing the man to life in his youthful vigour as he reads the poem to a room of all the key figures of the Beat and also as the more thoughtful and analytical Ginsberg of the later interview, seemingly recorded at the time of the trial. In this he manages to reveal a vulnerability to Ginsberg that I had previously not seen in the versions of him delivered by Kerouac or in other interviews I had read, which did make the internal source of the poem somewhat clearer and more relatable.
The animation too manages to capture something of the essence of the poem, though there are times where it (by necessity of a visual of this nature) takes a too literal view of the text.
Meanwhile the trial scenes are simply an interesting, and well executed, cultural context to the poem including a few very good, but ultimately two-dimensional, performances. It’s safe to say, away from Franco’s Ginsberg, this isn’t ‘an actors film’.
While Howl the poem is a high point of 20th century literature capturing both a personal and cultural view of an aspect of life at the time, taking in everything from immigration to homosexuality to drug use to what has become known as ‘Beat’, the film Howl is far less essential, but none the less an interesting companion work to Ginsberg’s masterpiece.
and here is a recording of Ginsberg himself reading Howl: