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American Independents, Documentary

Howl (US 2010)

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in 'Howl'

This little film seems to be causing a fuss in the US and over here quite a few people don’t seem to like it – but it seemed to me both eminently watchable and useful in exploring how poetry can be a political form.

Howl is the story of how a poem by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg became the subject of an obscenity trial in 1957. Some critics have termed it a biopic but I wouldn’t classify in that way since this is not about a character’s life as such, but about a very specific period of it and the impact that his best-known work had on ideas about free speech. Instead, I think it is a form drama-documentary and this is possibly why it is controversial – though a gay-themed movie still seems capable of attracting bigoted comments in the US.

The film is about the ‘beat generation’. I only know of the characters involved at secondhand through the writings of Jack Kerouac and the poetry (written and performed) by the so-called Mersey Poets of the late 1960s in the UK, most of all Adrian Henri (who modelled some of his performances on Allen Ginsberg). Most of the central characters in the beats story appear in the film. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the publisher of Howl, the long poem at the centre of the trial in which he was the defendant. Kerouac features in the story alongside his travelling companion Neal Cassady (who was instrumental in helping Ginsberg to face his homosexuality – as it was usually termed in the 1950s).

The film has four elements which are interwoven. The trial in San Francisco is presented as a straight courtroom drama with a cast of excellent American character actors such as David Strathairn, Bob Balaban, John Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels etc. James Franco plays Ginsberg who is seen in two different elements. In one, he ‘performs’ the poem ‘Howl’ in front of an audience of beats and supporters in San Francisco’s Six Gallery – a hangout for ‘hipsters’. In the second he is interviewed by someone offscreen and we see flashbacks/stills of his relationships and adventures (Ginsberg took many photos himself). Finally, there is an animation section which illustrates some of the lines of poetry picking up on 1950s comics but also expressionism and various other forms. At the end of the film we get a brief archive clip of the real Ginsberg towards the end of his life and stills with titles explaining what happened to the other characters.

The issue at the centre of the film is freedom of speech and the trial follows a similar pattern to the ‘Chatterley Trial’ three years later in the UK, i.e. academics give evidence for and against the literary merits of the work. Whereas the British case was heavily circumscribed by issues of social class, the taboo in the American trial is more concerned directly with the use of sexually explicit language. As in the British case, the prosecution look rather silly. But despite the supreme importance of artistic freedom, the film is actually about so much more. The experiences of the beats that formed the material for the poem took place in America in the early 1950s – that period of rising affluence but also rising alienation as felt by anyone who didn’t conform to the consumerism and anti-communism of Eisenhower’s America. The beat generation is associated with the jazz scene, avant-garde literature, drug use, sexual liberation – everything in fact associated with ‘alternatives’ to conformist society.

The key to the way in which the film elicits its responses is probably related to the use of animation. My companion at the screening knows much more about the beats than I do and though he enjoyed the film overall, he wasn’t that keen on the animation. I’ve seen similar comments in UK reviews and from other friends. I didn’t really have these problems. Perhaps I am the more naïve viewer for whom the animation is designed to be an attractive way into the poem? This was certainly the intention of the very experienced co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Epstein was responsible for one of the first major documentaries about the gay community with The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and with Friedman he made the fascinating and very useful Celluloid Closet in 1995, exploring the history of representations of gays in the cinema. My first reaction to the animated sequences (which literally illustrate parts of the poem, so that we hear the lines again over the animation that we have already heard Ginsberg/Franco delivering in the gallery) was that I recognised what I thought were comic book graphics. I think Ginsberg says something about this at one point. From the excellent official website (download the Press Pack) I learned that the person with overall responsibility for the animation is Eric Drooker, a New York artist and ‘graphic novelist’. Ginsberg collected Drooker’s work for several years before the two collaborated on Illuminated Poems, an illustrated version of Ginsberg’s poems including ‘Howl’. There is an interesting interview with Drooker about his work on the film here.

An example of Drooker's work on 'Howl' from the website link above.

You can get a sense of the film from the official trailer:

If your interest in the beats and associated American ‘alternative’ films is piqued by this film, YouTube has plenty of other material, including these films by Shirley Clarke and Robert Franks both important starting points for Epstein and Friedman:

It’s also worth listening to Emile de Antonio on documentaries and the beats:

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