With James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, Epstein and Friedmann’s Howl recreates the poetic timebomb in Fifties mores, exploding his anguished art into pieces.
A Season In Hell by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After part-directing the groundbreaking Seventies documentary Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives and the Oscar-winning The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein joined forces with co-writer and co-director Jeffrey Friedman in 1989 to keep the rainbow flag flying. Together they’ve tackled AIDS, Hollywood and the Nazis, in the documentaries Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175 respectively. So beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg might seem like an off-beat topic after such a barn of sacred cows. But with its rigidly tripartite structure that echoes the portmanteau talking heads of their previous documentaries, the Howl experience is still very much collective. Constructed out of known texts – an interview transcript, court testimonies and the verse itself, Howl isn’t so much a film about Allen Ginsberg as it is about the social context of his nuclear poem and the hole it ripped in the pleated fabric of Fifties innocence.
With its underground poetry readings, jazzy score, black and white photography and San Francisco gay scene, Howl is a desperate celebration of Beat culture and its splenetic individuals raging against the easy-care culture of postwar conformity. And as the first artwork of the Beat generation, Ginsberg’s poem is rightfully lavished with animation, beautiful cinematography and period detail. But as the freshfaced poetry reading Ginsberg or the ruminating bearded interviewee, it’s James Franco’s breathtaking performance that dominates Howl. And intoning the poem with his mellifluously shingly voice, Howl takes on a ritual gravitas – an elastic, breathy Beat rhythm that’s as fresh now as it must have been fifty years ago.
Alongside the drawling Franco of a black and white San Francisco speakeasy, there’s also a freewheeling animated illustration of Ginsberg’s poem by the Monk Studio. And as Franco hits us with a battering ram of rancid adjectives, the cartoon vignette is great at helping us find a foothold into Ginsberg’s infernal hinterland. But it’s also the weakest part of the film; its computer-generated high-line lacks the hand-drawn beauty of Chomet, Ocelot or Sfar. True, the court scenes suffer from Franco withdrawal, but with its parade of cameos, including Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels and Jon Hamm, the obscenity trial against Howl‘s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is like a clear spring of contemporary morals, as yet untainted by the grimy sexuality of Ginsberg’s poem.
Twelve years before the Stonewall riots, the trial is a two-left-feet negotiation of gay rights in America. The poem with men “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” leaves the establishment reeling – eager to censor, unsure of sense. And so San Francisco’s prim literati testify about their experience of reading Howl; of being dragged through the gutter but also of its “redeeming social importance”. It may be a crime, but it’s sensational art, darling. The legal case, of course, isn’t a defence of the crime of homosexuality, but a promotion of frankness and breadth of experience. It’s the first charge of the Beat brigade; all post-war sex, drugs and jazz. A successful sortie soon to be followed within a year or two by Burroughs and Kerouac.
But perhaps the most charming aspect of Howl is its clean-shaven poet “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts”. Ginsberg, the young gay copywriter who sees his friends institutionalised, in hiding and afraid. Lobotomised young men neutered with electric shock therapy to correct their homosexual leanings. It’s a bloodcurdling howl de profundis, but just as existential as queer. The very title conjures up Edvard Munch’s nihilistic painting. And at his psychotherapist’s suggestion, Ginsberg gives up his safe career in advertising for the wayward destitution of the poet. His poem is a confrontation with the past and present – troops of faceless first-borns sacrificed to the god of industry, the Wall Street bull becomes the Moloch of capitalism. It’s anti-establishment, but also a very human anguish, choosing to shoulder the world’s suffering and live.
Documenting his journey towards survival, Ginsberg’s Howl is also love letter to Peter Orlovsky, irrevocable proof that, despite the pain, there can be a love that dare not speak its name. A hope to which the lifelong partnership between Orlovsky and Ginsberg bears witness. But above all, Howl is a new definition of art. It’s the individualist’s self-sacrifice to his muse, an artistic truth revealed only through self-acceptance and truthful soul-baring. Art, the true copy of one’s self. Yet, while Ginsberg creates poetry through a rodeo wrangle with every syllable, Epstein and Friedman make no pretensions of their own. Their Howl doesn’t even choose its own words. But as documentary makers, the duo have created something uniquely powerful – the portrait of a poem as a cultural event; imaginative, biographical and political. That it lacks poetry isn’t a criticism, but a homage to Ginsberg’s own words, naked and fragile.
Howl is released in the UK on 25th February 2011