24 December 2010

Epstein & Friedman’s ‘Howl’

James Franco (right) as Ginsberg,
with Broadway star Aaron Tveit as Peter Orlovsky
These pictures recreate a series of photos of the real Orlovsky and Ginsberg.

I suspect that writer–directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman meant for audiences to leave their film Howl in a cheery mood. There’s a happy ending, after all: good (freedom of speech) triumphs over evil (censorship), a controversial poem endures to find general acclaim, and a lonely artist finds true love, regardless of the fact that, in real life, he once cruised me in an East Village coffee shop. What’s not to be happy about?

But perhaps the filmmakers weren’t expecting writers in their audience — or anyway, not unpublished ones. At the end of the movie, Allen Ginsberg (our protagonist, portrayed by James Franco, himself a writer) suggests that superior art — that which is honest, meaningful, true — is created only when the artist stops giving a damn what other people think of him. Ginsberg is able to write “Howl,” he says, only because he believes his disapproving father will never see it. The only durable censorship may be that which comes from within.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that, once the poem is published, Ginsberg’s career is launched and his stature assured, while he is still a young man. Not all of us are that lucky, and I left the theater regretting the books I didn’t write. Most exceptionally, I wished that I’d been able to read the shooting script while I watched the movie, less for the poem (which I’d read for the first time only a few weeks ago*) than for the eternal verities that Ginsberg and other characters express so eloquently.

Epstein and Freidman are best known as documentarians (The Times of Harvey Milk, Threads from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet). Their present film is a fairly daring conflation of genres: part biopic (in accordance with time-honored Hollywood tradition, all the actors are much, much better-looking than their real-life counterparts), part documentary (the dialogue is taken from court transcripts and a long interview with the poet), part recitation, part animated explication du texte. Glancing over the Internet, I see that this approach confounded some critics, though I found it successful.

Certainly the trial scenes, for all their documentary integrity, are more compelling than transcripts when enacted by the likes of Jon Hamm and (especially) David Strathairn, as the prosecutor in over his head and all-too aware of it. The animated sequences were no less beautiful when over-literal, which they sometimes were. As a couple of exchanges in the trial scenes make clear, looking for literal meaning in this poem is its own particular fool’s errand; better to give oneself over to the music of the language.

Hamm (standing) and Strathairn (seated)

Franco does just that in a recreation of the first public reading of “Howl”: he gives us something very much like an extended jazz solo. He delights in the sounds and the rhythms for their own sake, and while he really doesn’t look anything at all like Ginsberg, he captures the voice so precisely that, at the end of the movie when we hear the real poet, off-camera at first, I thought it was still Franco speaking. He remains one of the most intriguing actors working today, and it seems more and more as if his own artistry has been liberated in recent years. He pursues the projects that please him, regardless of career or commercial considerations that rule most other stars his age; the results are consistently worthwhile.

In Howl, Franco confronts not only Ginsberg’s artistic process and his quirky wisdom — which would be enough for most actors, in most movies — but also the poet’s complex emotional life. Even as Franco’s Ginsberg is falling in love with straight guys, his eyes are yearning, lonely; he stands apart, sometimes connecting only through a camera that keeps him at an extra remove from others. Physically, the character really comes alive only during the scenes of that public reading. Grooving on his genius and the responses of his listeners (who include a couple of the men he loves), made beautiful and desirable by words, he’s practically dancing to the music he makes.

I’ve been there myself. And that, for this reader, is what “Howl” is about.

Most of the language of the poem is commonplace now, and most of the activities it describes are legal. We live in better times; it’s easy to look back and smirk, if not laugh outright, at those who found the poem shocking, half a century ago, and who would have suppressed it. Yet “Howl” is by design subversive, as it always is to call things by their right names. If it doesn’t shock us now, at least a little, if it doesn’t reveal something we haven’t seen already, then it isn’t doing its job.

I’m glad I read the poem, glad the film made me do so at last, and glad I saw the film. I’m only sorry that I left the theater so depressed. At the very moment Ginsberg cruised me, I should have been liberating myself — albeit not necessarily with Ginsberg, in the way he had in mind. The artistic lesson of Howl is, then, not so very different from that of The Pee-Wee Herman Show, though the effects are entirely different.

*NOTE: You can’t seriously think that, in my suburban Texan high school, we were taught “Howl,” and I’d be willing to bet that no copy existed in our public library, either. By the time I got to college, we were expected to know “Howl” already, and I pretended to, in that way that I had.


Anonymous said...

Your essay puts me in mind of a symposium-style article published in Commentary magazine not quite 20 years ago. It was about the legacy of the 1980s, and, in an effort at ideological diversity, the editors solicited contributions from Paul Berman and other leftists as well as from people more in Commentary's orbit. In Berman's piece, he castigated the tendency to "douse ourselves in celebratory champagne" in our exuberance over the triumph of capitalist values at the end of the Cold War, while ignoring the victims of Reaganite capitalism -- the drug-riddled bodies of the homeless littering our subway stations and other public places. Berman was indignant that people could so blithely ignore the scourge of addiction and homelessness that he blamed on rampant capitalism.

But Hilton Kramer contributed a thoughtful piece in which he reminded readers that "the legitimization -- no, the celebration -- of drugs as a way of life" did not come from the ideological corner associated with Ronald Reagan. Kramer wrote that we know very well what part of the spectrum the celebration of drugs and other libertine pursuits came from, adding, "Allen Ginsberg, please take a bow here." Countless millions of lives have been ruined because people did exactly what Allen Ginsberg so lyrically and defiantly urged them to do.

You have nothing but praise for Ginsberg: "Most of the language of the poem is commonplace now, and most of the activities it describes are legal. We live in better times; it’s easy to look back and smirk, if not laugh outright, at those who found the poem shocking, half a century ago, and who would have suppressed it."

I'm not so sure we should be laughing at those stuck-up prudes who dared suggest that some of the activities celebrated in "Howl" might not be healthy for everyone. Anyone who concludes that we should needs to have his cake and eat it, so to speak.

-- Rick

Randy said...

I first encountered Howl in the Kronos Quartet recording of Lee Hyla's setting (which is musically in excellent concord with Ginsberg's tone). In a ride to the airport, I later had the privilege of asking Hyla about the experience of having Ginsberg on hand for the recording. His candid impression of the poet now comes to mind every time I hear Ginsberg's name. To say the least, the man seemed to have stopped giving a damn what other people thought of him!

So, now I am looking forward to seeing the film in the current phase of my creative life, just for the visceral catalyst to consider (much as you seem to have done) how I censor myself as a creator and what I might create next if I stopped pretending to know what other people will think.

William V. Madison said...

Randy -- I look forward to your response to the movie! And, as far as Ginsberg's musical connections go, I'm looking forward to the Fort Worth Opera Festival's upcoming performances of Hydrogen Jukebox, a collaboration between Ginsberg and the composer Philip Glass.

Performance dates are:
May 24, 25, 26, 28m, 29 & June 1, 2, 4m, 5, 2011

William V. Madison said...

Rick -- It's surely a function of my own naïveté that drug references typically go over my head. I was only dimly aware of any in the poem "Howl," and the movie (like the obscenity trial it depicts) is almost exclusively concerned with the work as a statement of priapic principle: in it, a gay man openly exults in his sexuality, while admiring the sexuality of other men, and tying his observations to a broader view of the society of his times.

With regard to those times, I did indeed mean that we shouldn't be too quick to mock those who were shocked by "Howl," and I see that it was too easy for a reader to misunderstand that point. But when I say that "we live in better times," I speak not of drugs but of sex and censorship.

Gay men today can express themselves freely -- and in calmly modulated voices, rather than in isolated (or drug-addled) howls -- without being taken to court. We've come a long way, baby, and I consider that a good thing.

American attitudes toward censorship have evolved, as well. I can publish my little essays -- and your comments -- according to my conscience.

For this, I tend to give more credit to others, but if Allen Ginsberg's spirit chooses to take a bow, so be it.