Friday, October 8, 2010

Empathy: Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein's Howl

When Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic poem “Howl” in 1955, after being encouraged by the anarchist scribe Kenneth Roxworth to free his voice, it was an attempt to recreate the spontaneous prose that his friend and novelist Jack Kerouac accomplished in On the Road (1951). “I thought I wouldn’t write a poem but just write what I wanted to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble magic lines from my real mind – sum up my life – something I wouldn’t be able to show anybody, writ for my own soul’s ear and a few other golden ears,” Ginsberg once said about his famous ode.

The new film, Howl, by Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) and Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk), sets out to get inside those “magic lines” to illuminate how Ginsberg’s poem, with it’s free-form jazz rhythms, worked its hoodoo on an awakening audience of American bohemians seeking cosmic freedom in the mid-fifties. Howl, which stars James Franco as Ginsberg, is a film of bottomless empathy for its subject. The movie examines how Ginsberg’s “Howl” provided a framework for the acceptance of his homosexuality, as well as a vehicle for coming to terms with his mother’s death from mental illness. (The poem itself was written for Carl Solomon whom he met in a mental institution.) Yet “Howl” would also go on to ignite an obscenity trial in 1957 once San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books, published the work in 1956 as part of a collection titled Howl and Other Poems. While celebrating the quest for spiritual freedom in Ginsberg’s work, Friedman and Epstein successfully get at the irreverent roots of Ginsberg’s rebellion and why “Howl” became such a passionately impish and angry sonnet.

In creating the look of Howl, the directors essentially borrow the mock documentary style of Bob Fosse’s 1974 film about comic Lenny Bruce. Lenny featured Dustin Hoffman recreating Bruce’s controversial routines while various actors played the key people in his life being interviewed. Fosse also featured a facsimile of Bruce’s own obscenity trial. (In Howl, Franco recreates Ginsberg’s famous debut performance of the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco which is intercut with a mock interview about the poem and various actors playing the parts of attorneys and witnesses at his obscenity trial.) But Lenny was a work of deification that ultimately falsified Bruce’s work and his appeal. Howl thankfully doesn’t turn Allen Ginsberg into a candidate for sainthood. On the contrary, Franco brilliantly invokes Ginsberg’s mischievousness as well as his breathless spontaneity and humour. He sees the poet as neither an innocent victim, nor a seer, but a dedicated writer in the process of discovering his true voice. It’s a beautifully modulated performance that allows the spirit of Allen Ginsberg to breathe his own air.

The structure of the film, however, is somewhat uneven. While largely making smart choices, the directors' recreation of the trial sequence is a little too stiff and formal. The actors are also unable to seem “real” because they are playing historical figures in a mock documentary. But it’s still fascinating to be witness to a trial where the attorneys (played very well by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and David Strathairn) debate "Howl" while invoking the merits of Voltaire’s Candide and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Friedman and Epstein also fail in their effort to recreate the power of the poem by using animation over Franco’s reading. The idea, while ambitious, falls flat because the images are too literal, whereas Ginsberg’s poem is a flight into free association.

While the movie sticks to the specifics of the time and place of “Howl,” you can’t help but hear the poem’s inner voice speaking to the future — such as in the later work of Bob Dylan (especially “Subterranean Homesick Blues” where Ginsberg is featured in the song’s promo film holding the lyrics like cue cards), or perhaps Captain Beefheart (“Orange Claw Hammer”). However, Friedman and Epstein go beyond giving “Howl” the classic treatment, or turning the work (and Ginsberg) into a symbol of the Beat Generation. What they do best is paint a portrait of an American writer whose inner voice contained many irresolvable contradictory impulses.

Critic Greil Marcus once wrote about “America,” a later Ginsberg poem, “When I hear Ginsberg say ‘America go fuck yourself with your atom bomb,’ I see him grinning with pleasure — the pleasure of telling your own country to go fuck itself, to be sure, but also the thrill of Slim Pickens riding his hydrogen bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove, wahooing himself and everyone else into oblivion.” What Howl so generously brings to life is that great American paradox; where a man’s critical voice is inseparable from the love he has for the culture that created him.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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