Skip to comments.Movie Review: "Howl" (2010) - the 1957 poetry obscenity trial
Posted on 12/07/2010 6:40:17 PM PST by I can has Low Taxes?
I've been trying to watch more "challenging" movies recently (documentaries, indie flicks, old foreign films), and when a friend wanted to go see "Howl" (2010 film starring James Franco), I figured I'd give it a shot. I'd heard of the poem, and knew Ginsberg was a Beat poet like Kerouac, but that was about it.
First off, I'll admit that I though a 1957 obscenity trial would be about something pretty minor, kind of like having an obscenity trial for a painting that's just a bunch of abstract smears. Well... nope. "Howl" was pretty graphic in places, so it wasn't just that people were prudish in 1957. It's not really forum-friendly, but you can google up a bit of the poem if you're curious. It was a little racier than I expected, but overall I was interested in seeing it in terms of 1st Amendment history, and that part was actually pretty interesting.
In any case, the actual film was a mix of color footage of Franco playing Ginsberg (the poet) during the trial, giving a long interview and explaining where the different ideas for the poem came from, as well as separate scenes showing his publisher on trial in the courtroom. Then part of it was black-and-white footage recreating the period when he wrote it, and what his life was like. The odd part I hadn't expected was that a good quarter of the film was animation, a kind of abstract storytelling of the lines of the poem.
First, the parts I didn't like: as mentioned, the actual verses were a bit creepily graphic in points, but actually not bad outside those points. Some of the animation was likewise a bit odd; not actually pornographic, but kind of artsy-suggestive, though some not necessarily pleasantly. Considering the dude was gay, there was surprisingly little gay stuff shown (to my relief), though the cutesy hand-holdy stuff was kind of... well, gay. The courtroom scenes were interesting overall, but I think they over-played up the witnesses for the prosecution as being uptight fuddy-duddies instead of depicting them as people with valid legal arguments. So that part came off a bit smarmy, like the defense was arguing against unhip caricatures.
Now the good parts: the actors really did an awesome job, very believable. Especially odd seeing Franco (who apparently usually does heartthrob roles) play a neurotic little gay poet. The black-and-white recreations of Ginsberg's life really gave a great flavor for the beatnik period, great feeling of another "time and place", and seeing his life laid out bit by bit really put the poem in context. The scenes of this somber little guy in a suit tiptoeing through a microscopic NYC apartment full of his sleeping deadbeat friends to get to work was hilarious.
The courtroom scenes were pretty engaging, and kind of odd watching actual literary critique from English professors forming a legal argument. I did particularly like the fact, somewhat unexpected in a rather lefty film, that the judge, labeled "conservative" in the newspaper shots, was portrayed as a strict constitutionalist, and gave his final acquittal based on 1st Amendment grounds and a "free society" argument.
The poetry was, again, very odd in places, but aside from the graphic bits (which honestly seemed a bit more teenageish shock value than genuinely terrifying), parts of the poem were pretty intriguing, especially with the accompanying animation. There's a whole section about the Babylonian god Moloch, depicting his mother (who was institutionalized for mental illness) and the lost druggie/dropout/unemployed Depression-era youth in his life being fed into this huge burning furnace of a statue. It was pretty chilling symbolism, especially realizing that this guy was locked in a mental hospital back when they used to treat with lobotomies and electric shock.
Overall, I think it was worth seeing, though I certainly wouldn't take a 1st date there (this was a 5th date, and it was her idea). Though it's not my favorite poem, it is a well-known poem and basically the main example of a whole literature period, so worth being at least aware of. And seeing it in the context of his life I understood the poem about 5 times better than I would have if I'd just tried reading it.
Overall I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5, mainly downgrading for being a bit too smarmy, playing up the "rebels and artists" side a little too much instead of creating tension by keeping the portrayal more even-handed. This is definitely not a film for anyone under 18, or anyone not savvy enough to watch it and understand that the protagonists are not necessarily good examples to follow, but instead the interest is seeing someone with a pretty messed-up life and how he tried to express it. The guy's not a hero to me, but I will grant he's a heck of a case study.
I used to hate “Howl,” then in my master’s course I wrote a paper asserting that the Moloch of the poem was not simply a liberal definition of a restrictive America, but more like the refining fire of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as well as the fire that creates art in many black poets.
I’ve come to really like the flow of the poem, especially since the three chapters imitate a different religious text and the free cadence of the poem is amazing.
But really, “A Supermarket in California” is my favorite Ginsberg.
i enjoy the look on the faces of college kids when i inform
them that jack kerouac was a member of john birch society.
by the way. i’m a big yeats fan myself, had not thought
of comparison with howl.
“i enjoy the look on the faces of college kids when i inform
them that jack kerouac was a member of john birch society.”
Kerouac eventually denounced Ginsberg and called him out for the scumbag, commie, NAMBLA member that he was.
they also have same look when i further inform
them that johnny ramone was big reagan fan.
i guess they’ll really flip now that mo tucker
is tea partier.
Really? Interesting. I’ll have to read more about that character. Jack Kerouac. A little before my time, but not much.
I just tried reading a bit of “Howl” on the web. I get the gist of it right off...same ol’ mantra they are hustling today. Reading it kind of made me tired.
I’m so glad I’m a Harry Potter fan and have enough film to watch and rewatch for days.
>>I just tried reading a bit of Howl on the web. I get the gist of it right off...same ol mantra they are hustling today<<
Exactly. The writer was having auditory hallucinations. In other words, he was insane. And academia say it’s brilliant.
I’d rather listen to Vogon Poetry.
Insanity and genius are a pretty thin line... :)
Again, Ginsberg is interesting as a case study more than a figure of admiration. The interesting part isn’t thinking of him as a great guy, it’s seeing the chaos and emotion pouring out of a broken human being. At any rate, it’s a lot more interesting than a lot of more generic flowery poets, and surprisingly less navel-gazy since it seems more haunted than contrived.
I do like Robert Burns a lot though, out of the old-school poet. The man starved to death too; way more hardcore living than most modern poets. Interesting story: supposedly after he died, a bunch of fans and public figures felt bad that he hadn’t gotten enough support to keep fed, so they raised funds and built him a monument. To which his mother replied “Och! Me Bobby ask’d fer bread and ye gave him a stone!”
>>Insanity and genius are a pretty thin line... :)<<
I understand. I was an Office Manager for Psychs in my past life (pre-kids). I saw one family with a Schizophrenic mother and son, yet the rest of the family were rocket scientist working for NASA.
However, I’ve seen many people making the call of genius when it’s the pure ramblings of the insane. This poet was insane.
(And Jon Hamm is in it!)
“I do like Robert Burns a lot though, out of the old-school poet. The man starved to death too; way more hardcore living than most modern poets.”
It was a different world that he lived in. Incidentally, I never heard anything about Burns starving to death. I had heard that he suffered rheumatic heart failure due to too much childhood exertion on an inadequate diet.
At that time, artists really couldn’t make a decent living without the support of an aristocratic patron. Mozart tried to live independently and ended up dying impoverished at the age of 31.
Thanks for posing the trailer! It gives you a pretty good idea of the film, though it doesn’t include the weird animation. Maybe saving it as a shocking surprise?
On a sidenote, there’s a rather bizarre but haunting song played in the credits, and it took some googling to track down. Turns out it’s “Father Death Blues”; Ginsberg wrote it about flying home for his father’s funeral, and would sing it while accompanying himself on a harmonium (tiny lap-sized pump organ the Hindus and Sikhs got from missionaries and co-opted). It’s worth listening to if you like haunting folk music:
There are some coherent parts. Much of it I read (and I didn't read it all, mind you) just sounds like a hippie on acid. Not much else there...a bunch of nouns with adjectives that say, "I hate capitalism." I'm probably biased and can't see the forest for the trees. :-/
I did see some of the "obscene" parts, however. Really racy stuff for the 50s.
As a fan of The Beats, I was interested in seeing this film. Thanks for your review.
I’m even more impressed by Franco now; I found a clip of Ginsberg being interviewed by William F. Buckley, and it’s uncanny to see how closely Franco captured Ginsberg’s odd little mannerisms.
Ginsberg interviewed by Buckley. That must have been a hoot!
Interesting that you wax emotional about Ginsberg, a notorious fag and member of NAMBLA.
BTW I checked out your one page of comments since you signed up to FR and you’re anti-Semitic, pro-fag agenda, and apparently think Muslims only started to kill infidels since Israel become a nation.
You’re pretty weird.