Snorkelling Beneath Words

Published: November 12th 2010
in Culture » Movies


Immortality often engenders familiarity – what’s always there, is in effect boring – paradoxically desiccating the immortal’s relevance, force and vitality. Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem ‘Howl’, in a remarkable accomplishment, manages to fuel an entire film that is not quite a biopic or a documentary but a sui generis tribute to the power of art itself. But you wouldn’t know it from the way it has become half canonised as part of the Jewish-American social talmud; also being a part of many a curriculum on modern English literature. It takes a fresh re-telling to resurrect something possibly staid and in this regard, ‘Howl’ the film, succeeds exceedingly.


 My introduction to Ginsberg came not in a classroom but in another unorthodox narrative: of Bob Dylan in ‘I’m Not There’ where Cate Blanchett playing Dylan, after a minute long conversation with Ginsberg enthuses “That was Allen Ginsberg man!” For those not familiar with Ginsberg and the so-called Beat Generation that sprung out of New York City in the mid to late 1950s, the neshome of this movie will educate rather than exclude.


 James Franco deeply loses himself in playing the protagonist in what may be his breakthrough role. Indeed there are certain moments in the movie where the depth of his acting predicates a coming-out party of sorts. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the directors, manage to focus on the force of the poem rather than try to gratuitously explain everything. There is no mention of Ginsberg’s nearly four decades of life after ‘Howl’. Even the black and white montages of his earlier recollections are sparse (but sufficient). The focus is on the poem and what it was trying to communicate to its time and by extension ours. This single-mindedness is invigorating.


 The films moves between an earnest Ginsberg reading ‘Howl’ to friends in a coffeehouse in San Francisco, a courtroom scene where the merits of his poem and its alleged obscenity is being debated, an zealous animation sequence by Eric Drooker which attempts to visually dance with the poem and an interview scene (Franco at his most convinced and convincing self) in his apartment. The interchangeable formula of scene changes between the aforementioned settings may feel predictable (and it is) but both the strength of the poem and the movie make this seem unnoticeable. Perhaps the weakest element of the poem is the animation which almost derails the narrative as it vainly overextends in its reach to render immaterial poetry with form. This segment is also paired with Franco reading the poem with a forced lilt. Yet even this cloying hebetude springs from devotion and is therefore excusable.


 The courtroom scene features Jon Hamm-pun-fully Don Draperesque-as a 1950s lawyer. It has been suggested that this is distracting; one can’t seem to take Hamm’s role seriously. Only rabid Mad Men-ites would see Hamm as typecast – he performs quite ably here. There is a subtle affirmation of free speech as well when Jon Hamm in character declares “There are books which have the power to change men’s minds.” Particularly when this affirmation comes against a dull torrent of obnoxious professors (including one played by Jeff Daniels) who don’t see any “literary merit” in Ginsberg’s poem.


There more than enough elements which make ‘Howl’ a fertile and great movie, despite its shortcomings. By the time Franco reads the footnote to the poem solemnly, his eyes pleading “Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity! Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” – your own begins to moisten.


‘Howl’ debuted in Canada in September at the Edmonton International Film Festival and is now playing at select theatres nationwide.


Related articles: (HOWL, James Franco, Allen Ginsberg)
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