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by Kavish Chetty / 24.10.2011

Cinema has the magnificent discontinuity that our own lives are lacking. We have to breathe through all the stasis and slumber, the lulls and breaks in rhythm, the slow marches. The characters of cinema are always already compacted into symbolic completeness, a desirable wholeness. They’re just there in 90-minutes of volatile, beautiful perfection. It makes their lives something to drool over. Biographies have this power. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been seduced by the romanticism of other people’s lives. Even the mediocre things have such narrative flow – the way they sprawl together on unmade beds, stubble and red-eyed hangovers on overcast mornings. It all just has the luxury of meaning.

Poets get this treatment often. Poets are figures of mystique and cinema has to capture all that biographable enigma. There are hagiographies and sensationalisms; there are portrayals of “inner torment” and rupture. But they’re always somewhere deep inside the private life of the poet, turning them with all the benefits of retrospection and editing into whole archetypes of their profession. Check out Black Butterflies (on circuit at the moment, actually) about Ingrid Jonker. She’s the “tortured artist” with daddy-issues and a sharpened moral consciousness which informs her poetry. Howl has got something different going for it, though. The private moments are just muted snapshots amongst a larger, more engaging framework. The film has its own exemplary contextualisation and relevance built into it. A dramatic exposition of the inaugural beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s life and signature poem in four parts: a full (though staggered) recitation of the poem, a courtroom drama chronicling the 1955 obscenity trial which accompanied its publication, re-dramatised interviews with Ginsberg (with pretty-boy James Franco playing Ginsberg), and those same muted shots of private life.

Anyone familiar with the long-form experimental poem “Howl” will know its deranged charisma with its iconic lines of post-war disillusion and uprooted existential fucked-upness in an epoch giving itself over to postmodernism: those opening stanzas, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn” and “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient and heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.” The chance to see it recited in full here – accompanied to hallucinogenic animated visuals – is joy enough for this film. Howl doesn’t focus on the “portrait of the author” banality which mines the author’s private life and recreates private drama with edgy hipster-ish mystery. Oh, the private life and the mystery are there. But they come through in Ginsberg’s insightful narration, rather than through re-creation. Ginsberg was a quotable beatnik; honest and informed. He didn’t have any of this oblique bullshit. Like take loathable French philosopher Derrida who was once asked, “are you a poet or philosopher?”, to which he replied cornily, “I would say I am neither one or the other.” Derrida is the kind of guy who corners you at a dinner party with a series of cheap aphorisms; you just want to punch him in his face, a face no doubt arrogant with self-expressive narcissism. Ginsberg, however, is the kind of guy you seek out at these parties: laid-back, intelligent, unpretentious (at least in his portrayal here).


The film-makers are Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, both with documentary backgrounds (The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet). Pillaging through hours of interview material, they get Franco to announce the poet in his (the poet’s) own words. This makes the film, as many are remarking, a kind of cinematic literary criticism, that’s not exactly going to draw in millions of admirers. In fact, between Ginsberg’s narration and the courtroom drama, the film pieces together some fantastic meditations on poetry: what counts as poetic merit, what is the point of poetry, what does “Howl” actually fucking say? And like all debates on art and poetry, endlessly rephrased debates, there aren’t answers here, only premises and perspectives. But, you know, the good ones.

Ginsberg’s poem is an ode and Howl is an ode to that ode. “Howl” was an ode to American street-level soul, birthing what became known as the beat generation (and a chronicle of his relationships to/with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Peter Orlovsky). There was homosexuality and drugs – lots of mention of the word “cock” – diatribes against the legislations of the universe, capitalism and consumerism, madness and pathology… all with the personal touch of his own journeying through these umbral, disavowed margins of the American dream. Howl in turn gives Ginsberg the chance to flesh these connections and encourage an extended debate on obscenity, freedoms of the artist, the sociopolitical relevance of art and so on.


But let’s just state explicitly what is latent so far. This film is going to be of most interest to people interested in poetry and the fine workings of literary criticism. The film has an academicised tone. It doesn’t suffer as a result. In fact this, I think, is its strongest advantage – it historicises, it situates. It makes Ginsberg and his poem manifestly part of something greater. “Howl” isn’t here just some private cathartic expressions of some guy, like poetry is in Black Butterflies. It has its urgency and it has its point. Ginsberg tells of his method, that there should be no distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your muse. Several times the question of “freedom” swings into view and comes under contemplation. (although some of the controversial and fascinating parts of Ginsberg’s life like his support for the paedophile outfit, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, are not featured).

The performances are excellent. Although, honestly, cards-down, Franco’s much handsomer than Ginsberg, who we mostly remember in scenes from later life as a bald and bearded buggerer. He recites “Howl” with satisfying rhythm and tone (that’s important; recitation is a tricky business and too often amateur poets will fuck it up). He gives the interview answers equally well. Jon Hamm (of Mad Men) plays Ginsberg’s attorney, Jake Ehrlich, prominently and boldly. And Jeff Daniels (as a professor in the testimony box) also gets a great pompous conservative academic thing going. These great characterisations together with its unique format assemble a useful and entertaining biography of one of the 20th’s century’s most celebrated and accomplished literary figures.

*Howl plays as part of the Out in Africa festival at the V&A Waterfront on Tuesday the 25th, and will open on the commercial circuit in the future.


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