Sunday, October 10, 2010

Film Review: "Howl" --James Franco Excels as Allen Ginsberg


"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....."

That begins Allen Ginsberg's jazzy epic poem "Howl".  In 1955 when it was published, "Howl's" subject matter and frank imagery must have been intoxicating to open-minded readers and artists hungry for the freshness of Ginsberg's voluptuous and defiant world-view.  It was also scandalous to moral watchdogs, and became the subject of a landmark debate on obscenity in 1957. 

The movie, directed by Rob Epstein ("The Times of Harvey Milk") and Jeffrey Friedman is marvelous work, a gem to behold, a small masterpiece of form, an inspiring and essential meditation on poetry and process and writing. It's also a straightforward look at Ginsberg and his influences, interspersed with impressionistic animation to illustrate the music and vividness of the language of "Howl".  I highly recommend this to anyone who cares about the art and future of writing, and the importance of free expression.

James Franco gives an understated and honest performance as Ginsberg.  The film moves between three phases of Ginsberg's story: his debut reading of "Howl" to a receptive club crowd; black-and-white flashbacks, recreating important moments in his romantic and artistic development; and a conversation with an unseen interviewer, in which Franco as Ginsberg delivers quiet and profound insights into how he writes, and how he overcomes the challenges of writing.

Franco, his hair dyed black and sporting the heavy eyeglasses as sort of a shorthand, shows his subtle skill in his reading of "Howl", and manages to convince viewers that this shy artist is tentatively, and then proudly, presenting this work in public for the first time.  During the interview sequences, he is simply conversing, but his inflections carry almost inexpressible meaning as he talks about his parents, his friends, his self-discovery, his sexuality, and his subjects.

The film solves the problem of presenting the entire poem in a visually interesting manner.  The words of the poem become notes of music, and turn into elaborate, colorful animated images that resemble something like an apocalyptic "Fantasia", dark and witty and rapidly morphing.  Fortunately, it is never too literal, as sometimes the images on the screen may differ from those conjured by listeners or readers.  It is disconcerting at one point to see the club crowd laughing at the humor of a passage that a few moments before was presented in somber animated images.  

In all, I think "Howl" the movie is a superb film of beautiful ideas and compelling images.  It is original and well-constructed, and is worthy of the artist and his work.  The recreation of the obscenity trial stands as a reminder of the repressions that may return today, fifty years later, in an atmosphere of ignorance and moral hypocrisy.  I especially appreciated these scenes which punctuate the film,  as they provide an historically fascinating debate on the nature of art and literature, the importance of originality of form in evaluating great work, the rich and varied meanings of words, the problem of understanding, and whether average consumers of art need protection from extreme expressions of thought.  Bob Balaban as the judge, Jon Hamm as the attorney for the Defense, David Strathairn as the Prosecuting attorney, and Jeff Daniels as a supercilious expert on literature, all make these sequences worth watching. 

Here are just a few of the words and images I will never forget, and that will lead me to re-visit this movie, I am sure, many times:

--Achingly romantic black-and-white images of Ginsberg in the arms of friend Neal Casady, providing solace and love;

--Ginsberg's assertion that there was no Beat movement; a surprising statement, made perhaps because none of the artists connected to that period intended to be influential, only to write and create art.  Their honesty and boldness went on to influence generations;

--Ginsberg explains that he rarely felt in control of his writing; only in rare instances did he know he was in command of his words.  That is a pure statement that many writers can verify, including myself;

--The advice to writers to write the way they talk, and to write about the things they talk about, in order to lend authenticity and individuality to their art;

--The statement in the courtroom that poetry cannot be explained in prose;

--An anecdote in which Ginsberg tells his psychiatrist that what he really wants is to have a small room with his partner and to give up his stifling corporate life and devote his life to contemplation and writing.  The psychiatrist, without irony, asks him why Ginsberg doesn't just do that.  A simple, unremarkable anecdote that nonetheless inspired me powerfully.

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