Howl (2010) Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
“Howl” is a celebrated poem by Allen Ginsberg, and a literary must. And Howl is a movie centered around the famous poem, which makes it also a must.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”
The beauty of this movie is that it’s devoted to “Howl.” “Howl” dominates it, and gives it the rhythm. In a clear and understandable way, it covers the poem’s creation, its famous recital, and the court trial. The movie is divided into four segments (let’s call them), revealing to us the whole story behind the poem from different perspectives. Thus, they contribute to better understanding of the poem how powerful it still remains. And what about the movie genre? In an experimental and even innovative way, the movie shifts from a documentary, recreating the original Allen Ginsberg interviews, to a performance of the poem, and to a courtroom drama. This combination certainly creates a unique picture not only to watch, but to hear and to experience, as well.
“who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz”
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the writers and directors, masterfully tackle the reciting of “Howl.” They trusted James Franco with the job, whose performance is superb, conscious of the poem’s power, and convincing in its physical and emotional involvement. The reciting is presented in two ways: the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955, and the animation. The Six Gallery reading strikes with a kind of simplicity. Shot in black and white, it shows Ginsberg with a manuscript of “Howl” in his hand in front of an aroused audience of artists and readers. As Ginsberg reads on, the camera closes up on excited faces, showing us raw emotions and reactions both to the poem and Ginsberg’s characteristic reciting.
“who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels”
The other part of the reciting is illustrated with an amazing animation. It is booming with color, sounds, and memorable images: junkies in the streets, billboards advertising products that will make your life perfect (don’t we know it?), mindless people, marching to work in identical suits, two lovers in an embrace, among many others. My favorite is the illustration of Moloch – it somehow reminds me of images from Pink Floyd The Wall (1982). This visual interpretation of the poem is excellent.
“Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisable suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!”
Let’s move on to the interviews. From the interviews, we find out the story of Allen’s life from his childhood to writing the poem. Franco’s Ginsberg tells us about his mother, his first literary attempts, discovering his homosexuality, and, most importantly, writing poetry and writing “Howl.” The interviews are accompanied by flashbacks to instances of Ginsberg’s life. It all looks like a movie reenactment of Ginsberg’s life. We see photos and brief scenes from his life. If we look closely, we’ll notice actual photos mixed into the movie. In this way, other icons of the Beat Generation are introduced. We meet Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), who inspired young Ginsberg’s poetic endeavors, Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott), who inspired him emotionally, and Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), who was his lifelong partner. We feel that Howl takes us back in time. Here the movie’s great achievement is that it shows emotions, even heartbreaks, but it strays from melodrama – instead of a sad story of a gay poet in the ’50s, we get a true story how life and art intertwine.
“I’m with you in Rockland
where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free”
Let’s move on again. The movie takes us to a 1957 court trial: Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers), the first publisher of Howl and Other Poems, stands before court for publishing an obscene piece of writing. Here, we have a feeling it is the poems itself that stands before the court. Different literary experts discuss “Howl”’s form, style, and value. Thanks to that, we move from mere court interviews with experts to thought-provoking and almost symbolic discussions about the role of literature, its message, impact, and value. It is a discussion we may have about any contemporary poetry, which proves that “Howl” has survived the test of time. The courtroom scenes are rid of music and unnecessary distractions since they focus on discussing and briefly analyzing the poem. In result, they draw our attention to words, and makes us think about our understanding of “Howl.” As a digression, do you notice that Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm), Ferlinghetti’s lawyer and the defender of “Howl,” resembles the Moloch’s victims, the black-suited workers, from the poem’s animation? “Curiouser and curiouser!”
“Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours!
bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
kindness of the soul!”
It’s such a shame this movie ends so quickly. I wish the reciting wasn’t over so soon, and the interviews didn’t end. Howl fascinates us with images and words. It inspires to delve deeper into the text, and get to know more about the Beat generation. Plus, at the end, a small musical treat waits for us. A movie worthy of the poem!
Long days, pleasant nights,