Love the poem, love the man, love the film.
‘Howl’ is a 2015 film about the landmark obscenity trial in 1957, concerning ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg’s signature poem. It features excerpts from the poem as we see beat poet Ginsberg reading his work to an adoring audience of famous writers such as Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. The film takes us back to a time in the fifties when jazz was blowing in the clubs and there were fixed ideas about what made poetry valid and acceptable and what was considered to be breaking the boundaries of decency. Ginsberg is a pioneer poet and his work changed public perceptions.
We cross cut to the trial where ‘Howl’, Ginsberg’s first published piece, was considered obscene because it dealt with subject matter and used language which had been previously taboo. A few years later, in England, D H Lawrence’s Lady ‘Chatterley’ was put through the same ordeal. Both writers works are seminal and influenced the freedoms we share as writers and readers.
‘Howl’ is considered to be one of the great works of American literature. It has a hallucinatory style which tumbles from the page and the tongue. It is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in a psychiatric institution.
‘Howl’, the film, will not be to everyone’s taste. I think it may be better suited to people who love poetry, performance poetry and who are interested in the seminal jazz age and have a vested interest in hearing James Franco, who plays Ginsberg, read chunks of the poem out loud in his strong, musical voice. It’s not your standard linear story.
It’s not an easy film: it’s not divided into three or five acts. Three strands interweave and some people may find this halting as it interrupts suspension of disbelief or emotional investment.
For me, the three parts of the film worked well. Franco as Ginsberg reading his work or being interviewed by an unseen reporter is the main element of the film, which fills in detail and biography. The trial of ‘Howl’ which, interestingly Ginsberg doesn’t attend, is fascinating in its own right for the comparison of witnesses: experts who demonstrate hypocrisy by suggesting that ‘Howl’ is obscene and has no literary merit contrasting with others who consider the talent of Ginsberg to be a breakthrough in literature.
The third strand is an animated interpretation of the poem, which we see as a graphic interpretation as Ginsberg reads. It may be somewhat crude and dated as animation, but it serves perfectly to illustrate the poet’s intention and puts his own experiences at the heart of his writing.
James Franco is well cast as Ginsberg. He recreates the poet’s conviction, his vulnerability and his engaging personality credibly. The era of the Beat Generation with its new thoughts about freedom, the music, the influential characters and the integral arts movements are evoked colourfully and I found the film worked well.
Some people will prefer an interpretation which is less documentary and more linear and perhaps therefore more satisfying as a biopic. I can see the merits of such a film but, although not a Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Howl’ is interesting for its unusual interpretation. Its format of poetry, trial scenes and visual graphics works well on screen and it is a celebration of Ginsberg’s unique and thrilling talent.
I watched ‘Howl’ with people who knew nothing of the Beat Generation or the poetry of Ginsberg, and they found it exciting, so it’s not just for poetry fans like myself.