Sunday, January 30, 2011


'Howl' is a poem that lives and breathes. Its fire is lit with internal combustion, which drives forth a powerful and real emotion that is both reflective and familiar. When I began watching the movie 'Howl', I had high hopes, albeit tempered with the trepidation that usually accompanies a cinematic version of something you enjoy in written form - even more so when the writing is a poem. I could hear the screams beforehand: “The book was better!” I generally hate when people say that because it is so universally true it doesn’t need to be said... and you sound like a jerk.
The movie 'Howl' was both a re-creation of the poem and a non-fiction account of Allen Ginsberg’s life told through a trial whereby 'Howl' (the poem) was accused of being obscene. The segments of the poem, being irritatingly recited by James Franco, were animated and dull to the point of insult.

The trial was the most interesting part of the film. It had a slew of experts called to testify about whether 'Howl' had any “literary value,” which provided interesting and funny commentary about the contemporary, post-Victorian era in which the trial is set. At the time, the definition of obscene was, “ Speech the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest" and which is "utterly without redeeming social importance..."”

The last bit was the important part for the film and the actual trial. Expert after expert attempted to either condemn or indemnify the poem by either accusing it of not making any sense or by trying to explain the abstract expression in their own prose. Was this poem utterly devoid of any redeeming social importance? What do they mean by “redeeming?” My answer to these questions is an easy, “yes” and “Nobody really knows.” But apparently those who were there had a tougher time wrestling these tricky issues.

The scenes themselves were tired. A little court room scene, cut to anecdote or animation, then back into the court room. Disjointed but with a purpose...we get it. It was wholly a linear movement that repeated the aforementioned pattern over and over again until the end. The subject matter makes this movie so interesting. I am personally an enormous fan of the Beat poets, Neil Cassady (or Dean Moriarty), and the spirit they possessed and exuded. How then could such a subject be so flat? I'm not sure exactly, but I thought that David Cross' ten seconds as Ginsberg in 'I'm Not There' was a better portrayal.

The recitation of the poem itself made me wish I was being trepanned with a wood-boring bit. Franco’s voice and rhythm seemed off base, annoying, and totally different from the way I read the poem to myself. Furthermore, I pulled up some of Ginsberg’s recitations and he also speaks the words differently. The voice is similar but the rhythm is off. Infuriating.

The animated portions, meant to be depictions of the contents of the poem, were trite and arrogant. Since Ginsberg is dead, it seems to be a little arrogant to take such liberties as to visually depict what he was feeling in 1955 through some cheap animated short containing romanticized versions of the lines he wrote. It as all too specific for me. I found myself actually angry at my television for what it was doing to me. Even more angry at Rob Eptsein for adding this to his impressive resume of non-fiction films.

Which brings me to another point: don’t let bias ruin films, but that’s a topic for a different post.

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