Rob Epstein and Jeremy Friedman did the best they could, that much is evident. Howl, the film, shimmers with integrity. It resonates in deliberate homage, like a curator holding up a prized work of art undergoing restoration; as if to say “Look at this, it’s EXQUISITE, it’s an irreplaceable artifact of 20th century culture! it’s a work of supreme art!”
Howl, the poem, certainly is that. Allen Ginsberg’s debut reading of the work at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955 gave voice to much that was to come – gay liberation, youth disillusionment with corporate hegemony, Cold War fear and paranoia, the meaning of “madness,” the cost of honest friendship, the landscape of a twisted, contradictory America.
The poem has become larger than the words typeset on the pages of the diminutive but iconic City Lights Pocket Poet paperback, volume #4 in the series. Howl has entered the cliched “fabric” of culture which in this case transcends cliche to arrive at foundation. Howl sketches the immediate past (1940s post-war America) and the immediate future (1950s Bomb Fear McCarthy red-baiting closeted despair) and juxtaposes it all against the concepts of True friendship, artistic integrity, and the inherently-posed question of “what is sanity in a time of insanity?” Howl, the poem, gave permission to question the zeitgeist. And when Accepted Culture came calling with arrest warrants and trial dates, Howl wailed its “eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxaphone cry” into the greater Universe of Free Expression. And prevailed. So much so that now there’s a film about the poem.
Chris Hedges, in numerous articles and in his recent book Death of the Liberal Class (2010), decries the supplanting of print culture with that of the image, the moving picture. It almost seems a fait accompli, in light of the growing primacy of the visual in our cultural expression and memory, that Allen Ginsberg would come to the Big Screen too, just like John Reed (Reds, 1981) and Henry Miller and Anais Nin (Henry and June, 1990) before him.
And that’s the essential conundrum. John Reed has become Warren Beatty in my mind’s eye, Louise Bryant forever appears as Diane Keaton. Henry Miller? It’s Fred Ward speaking Brooklynese and conjuring the starving literary iconoclast himself. Instead of the image of the writer pieced together from scraps of biography, reviews, memoirs, the texts themselves, we have a cinematic rendition, an actor playing the writer. In an age of visual communication where image is everything and where literary text is rapidly becoming secondary, the actor becomes the writer. And that is the shame of it all.
Might James Franco’s earnest performance as the younger Ginsberg (who was 29 the night of the Six Gallery reading) become the enduring image of the young poet? Should it? If so, at what point do we begin believing the conjured image to be the real person? At what point do the actor’s studied mannerisms and purposeful tics and gestures come to be accepted as the writer’s own?
Take as example the film’s extended interview sequences that depict Ginsberg discussing the poem, its genesis, his own role as poet. The words are all Ginsberg’s (taken from an actual interview) but what of Franco’s casual arrogance, the self-consciously casual way he smokes his cigarettes? Are these Ginbserg’s nuances or Franco’s interpretations of what Ginsberg might have been like?
Some would say it doesn’t matter, that an actor’s performance is simply that, an actor’s performance. But in a film reaching for authenticity and homage, these things do matter. This film intrinsically attempts to reconstruct what cannot be reconstructed and asks that we accept the reconstruction as faithful and true. Yet because of film’s obvious constraints – limited time frame (Howl clocks in at approximately 90 minutes), the need for ever-present motion and visuals aka “action,” the difficulty in contextualizing the story beyond its immediate storytelling – the result is inevitably attenuated and lacking in the very depth and richness that, in this case, the film’s subject, a poem, possesses.
|Allen Ginsberg & Erik Drooker E 12th St, NYC
Then there is the consideration of the Erik Drooker animation sequences. Drooker knew Ginsberg and they collaborated together on a selection of Ginbserg’s poems (Illuminated Poems, 1996). Drooker’s imagery is powerful, dynamic, vivid, realized both on the printed page and in this film. At once classic (think Lynn Ward and Rockwell Kent) and hallucinogenic (nod to Harry Smith), the animation sequences are extraordinary – and completely distracting.
In an ironic and certainly unintended consequence, Drooker’s animation is so extraordinary that it subsumes Ginsberg’s equally extraordinary verse. One simply cannot see and hear at the same time, not in equal measure anyway, and given the power of the imagery the literate is displaced by the visual. This, of course, given that the film is about a POEM, is utterly contradictory and, ultimately, a real problem. Given the poem’s hallucinatory, incantatory, revolutionary language, there is no NEED to craft images to illustrate it. Even, I would argue, in a motion picture.
Finally, to the trial scenes and the Six Gallery reading. A word comes to mind: stiff. The trial spectators might as well be wax figures, the attorneys seem like stage actors, the trial witnesses caricatures. The occasional flashing of newspaper headlines referencing the trial do little to convey the era’s prevailing cultural rectitude or the undercurrents of atomic fear, anti-communist hysteria, or Molochian-obsession with money and products.
The depiction of the Six Gallery reading is equally flat, excepting perhaps its atmospheric tobacco smoke and black & white cinematography. Glancing close-ups of enthralled onlookers, none of them appearing the least bedraggled, drunk, dirty, or subterranean in any sense, come across as mere props. There is no ENERGY in the crowd, no shouting, no rustling, no talking, no glasses clinking, nothing to suggest an actual sweaty, crowded, nervy, 1950s breakout poetry event. The film never sets the stage, so to speak, doesn’t even hint at the other participants that night (Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, emceed by Kenneth Rexroth), and so misses a chance to orchestrate a little buzz and hum. Instead, the film just gives us Ginsberg already at the microphone, all introductions apparently made.
Would Ginsberg have approved of this film? Probably. Though a Buddhist in philosophy and practice, Ginsberg could never completely subdue his considerable ego and vanity. He thrived on attention of all kinds, from youthful adulation to critical acclaim. Even denunciations of his work proved to him that his work mattered, that it resonated, that it irritated the people who needed irritating. He might have quibbled over a detail here or there or taken exception to one or another character’s portrayal, but ultimately a film this infused with gracious reverence would have delighted him. By the end of his life, the younger poet’s uncertainty had been replaced by a man of absolute conviction. He passed into the Bardo convinced of the essential worth of his literary production. That a film celebrating the importance of his most famous poem would be made and shown in movie houses across America would have pleased him enormously.