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Entries in Howl [2010] (1)

Monday
Jul252011

Howl (2010)

Beat, Not Beaten

I own Howl, the slim book of Allen Ginsberg poetry on which Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's slim biopic of the author is based--but I've never read it all the way through. It begins with vivid, raging flourishes of rebellion and sadness and escalates into a literary soup that I just couldn't wade through. Sad, but true--my "Never Walk Out" policy doesn't extend to books; even really short ones.

Which is why I'm so glad I watched Howl. The directors both revel in the art-house melange of the big-star, loose-narrative snapshots that came before (Basquiat, Factory Girl) and rise above it, creating three distinct movies in one without sacrificing the integrity of the individual pieces. Howl is part interview-reenactment, part courtroom drama, and part animated interpretation of the titular poem as read by James Franco playing Ginsburg in 1955.

Like the book, the film started to lose me early on. Franco's affected bombast during the poetry reading contrasts starkly with the nasal introspection of the interview section (during which he sports a Sharpie-marker beard that's almost as distracting as his capital-A Acting). And the animation--while a really cool blend of 2D and 3D art styles that runs the gamut from realism to impressionism--is so consumed by phallic imagery that it plays as desperate instead of celebratory.

Yes, Allen Ginsburg was gay. And Howl, the poem, is packed with cocks and assholes and idealized young men; not exactly Community Standards reading in the mid-50s, which leads to a trial that Ginsberg himself sits out. City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) stands accused of distributing obscene materials. His attorney, Jake Ehrlick (Jon Hamm), cooly examines witnesses and asks a lot of reasonable questions about literary precedents--none of which impresses prosecutor Ralph MacIntosh (David Strathairn), who just wants to sweep under the rug a book he publicly admits he doesn't understand.

These scenarios unspool, intertwine, and double-back on each other, with voice-over from the fantastical, jazz-infused cartoons popping up as lines used in evidence and as motifs in Ginsburg's flashbacks to his early years with a struggling writer named Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and closeted womanizer Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). As the words supersede the visuals, various vignettes from the different sections give them rich and devastating context. A brief allusion to Ginsburg's mother being in an insane asylum fuels memories of both a troubled childhood and the poet's own time in a psych ward, where he meets Howl's muse, writer Paul Solomon (the audience never meets Solomon, who, like any good muse, remains elusive).

The further I fell into Ginsburg's world of rejection, redemption and obsessive writing, the more I bought Franco as the character--his goofy, papers-waiving, coffee-house revolutionary schtick stopped bothering me. I have no idea whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of the poet, or if Franco sought to play a version of the man's spirit. Whatever the case, I came to believe in this Allen Ginsburg (but not the beard; never the beard).

Just as important as the interviews--which take us inside the mind of a gentle artist who spent most of his life unable to express himself physically or creatively because of family and societal pressures--are the courtroom volleys between MacIntosh and Ehrlich. It's not a big leap to guess A) who wins and B) who's side the movie is on, but two things really surprised me about these scenes.

First, the questions posed by both sides are damned good. The filmmakers work through their characters to force the audience to consider our own notions about art, quality, obscenity, and beauty. All of these serve to help the court decide whether or not what Ferlinghetti is accused of selling has any merit, and that central question informs a good deal of both the picture and the poem.

Take my issue with the overly abundant penis imagery. The movie asks if it's necessary; and, if it's unnecessary, is there anything wrong with that--or am I just projecting my own discomfort onto a work of art? My short answer is "no", that I just got annoyed with so many dicks being shoved in my face (ahem); but Epstein and Friedman offer a series of key mental exercises that can apply to issues we deal with in everyday life, no matter how sure we may be of our own methods for reckoning with them.

Second, I loved the fact that even though MacIntosh represents stodgy, Conservative thinking, he's not painted as a Bible-thumping hick or a firebrand. He's simply a man who neither comprehends nor accepts the vast cultural change that's coming his way (if Ginsberg made him dyspeptic, I imagine Lenny Bruce would have positively killed him). He's a good man who fights a battle with outmoded weapons. On the other side of the aisle, Ehrlich doesn't seem particularly interested in Ferlinghetti or Ginsberg--he comes across as a lover of free expression, and will drag out every ugly example of such in order to save it from frightened reactionaries.

Howl may appear to be a limousine-liberal vanity project--hell, maybe it is--but it's also a fine work of art that employs heavy-hitting performers, aesthetically bold animation, and a cereberally engaging thesis to create a truly moving experience. It made me want to write, to draw, to sing--and to finally finish reading Howl.